We have an 8-month-old and are moving into an apartment with wall-to-wall carpet that was installed in 2004. I heard that fire retardants used in carpets made before 2006 can be dangerous. Is that true?—Jane P., Chicago
A: Yes, that's true. Unfortunately, the fire retardant used in the foam padding of your carpet probably is polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE); it was taken off the U.S. market between 2004-2006, but it had been in use since the 1970s. When foam padding on carpeting breaks down, it turns to dust that can be inhaled or ingested. A recent study seems to have made a direct connection between prenatal and everyday exposure to PBDE and higher rates of hyperactivity and lower IQ scores in children. Children also can be exposed through breast milk. Another study found that PBDE accumulates in fat tissue, builds up from repeated exposure and can alter how adipose tissue functions.
So check to see if the carpet is labeled as complying with CA Bulletin 117; that's the 2000 California fire-retardant standard (turns out it was a bad idea) that mandated fire retardants be used in a wide range of household items -- and they were generally PBDEs. But even if it isn't labeled, that doesn't mean you're in the clear.
You can have the padding and carpet tested using a tool called an XRF (X-ray fluorescence) gun. Or, since you haven't moved in yet, you could replace the old carpeting with "green" carpeting, or go with wood floors and throw rugs. And when buying new household items, avoid any products with brominated fire retardants.
I'm confused. I thought that antioxidants were really good for you; now I hear that they may not be. Can you explain?—Freddie G., Philadelphia
A: First of all, trying to get antioxidants by taking megadoses (two or more times the daily value) of vitamins C, A, E or beta carotene generally is ineffective or harmful. The really good guys are polyphenols (a subset of antioxidants), which you get from fruits and vegetables.
By fueling up on fruits and veggies, you increase antioxidant levels (largely superoxide dismutase enzymes, catalase and glutathione) inside your cells. That trio helps prevent damage caused by proliferation of oxidized molecules (also produced inside the cells) called free radicals. Unchecked, free radicals affect your nuclear DNA, causing mutations that can lead to cancer and diabetes.
But you need some oxidized molecules. They help you breathe, help your heart beat more strongly when you're stressed and may help fight infections. The key to good health is a balance between anti- and pro-oxidants. Here are some examples.
- One study found that smokers taking vitamin E supplements increased their lung cancer risk. But it didn't increase nonsmokers' lung cancer risk, and eating foods rich in E poses no threat for smokers or nonsmokers.
- Too much vitamin A from supplements is associated with bone fractures and birth defects. But a diet rich in foods that contain beta carotene, the building block of vitamin A, poses no such risks and is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and some cancers.
- In one study of older adults, eating a diet loaded with polyphenols and other antioxidants was associated with a 30 percent reduction in mortality over a 12-year period.
Bottom line: For the right balance of polyphenols, eat nine servings of produce daily. We also believe in taking half a multivitamin twice daily for almost everyone. It's especially important for women during childbearing years (a daily multi prior to conception may decrease autism-spectrum disorders by about 40 percent) and men 50-plus (it decreases cancer and cancer recurrences). Also, more than 93 percent of you are deficient in vitamins such as E, D, K and B-12, and 70 percent of kids don't get enough vitamin E. So talk to your doc about getting a blood test to determine if you or your kids are deficient and, if you are, how to remedy the situation.