What Are Butylparabens and Artificial Colors Doing in My Children’s Medicine?!

By: Susan Hunt Stevens is the Founder of Practically Green, a new online service that helps families make healthy and green changes in their daily lives.

The other day we ran out of children’s Tylenol and I had to run to the pharmacy.  As an allergy mom, I’m so used to reading labels that habit caused me to turn to the ingredient list.  My first thought was “what the *&^% is that doing in there?!” After four years of this “going healthy green thing,” I realized I had totally overlooked the medicine cabinet. Five minutes of reading labels and I was truly stunned. I decided to corner some poor unsuspecting pharmacy tech to to see if it was possible to buy a pain reliever without any of the following:

1.  Parabens.

Yup — those same ones I’ve been avoiding in my kids’ lotion because of concerns about potential endocrine disruption?  I’ve been letting them eat the stuff. My children’s medicine has butylparaben in it, which evidently affects the fertility of male rat offspring. I know… I know: Parabens are “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the FDA.  According to the Chemical Encyclopedia on Healthychild.org however, parabens when ingested are “slightly toxic.” All I know is that I don’t want them in my kids’ meds!

2. Artificial Colors.

We try to avoid those too.  I figure if warning labels about artificial colors went onto our European friend’s kids products, I’m avoiding them. As I was digging into the specifics of each color, I noted that one of the products contained Yellow #10, which isn’t ALLOWED in food, but is allowed in drugs?!  Oh, but not in Europe.  According to ColorCon,

“Currently, D&C Yellow #10 is approved for use in drugs and cosmetics but is not approved for food uses. This material is not acceptable for use in foods or drugs in Europe due to a difference in the specifications of the monosulfonated and disulfonated components of the dye.”

3.  Sodium Benzoate.

I had to do a little research to remember why this common preservative set off alarm bells, but oh yes – sodium benzoate mixed with artificial colors can lead to hyperactivity in children, mixed with ascorbic acid there is concern about benzene formation (a known carcinogen), and a UK scientist recently noted in a lab that it affected the mitocondria of DNA.

4.  Propylene Glycol.

This compound might be the most confusing of the bunch.  The Environmental Working Group gives it a “moderate hazard” rating (4) when used in cosmetics, but doesn’t mention food.  The ether version (PGE) has been linked to increased allergies. Even the Material Safety Data Sheet says it is hazardous when ingested (assumedly in very concentrated amounts).  But what about in medicine?  It IS an additive that the American Academy of Pediatrics has raised concerns about, primarily because of adverse reactions that range from eczema to lactic acidosis especially when administered in large quantities.  But the Center for the Science in the Public Interest doesn’t mention it in their food additive list, either as safe or one to avoid and they are usually all over this stuff.  Hmmmm.

And finally, high-fructose corn syrup and lots of other sugars, including sorbitol.

The answer, unfortunately, is that at least in the kid’s liquid variety, the only improvement is a “dye-free” formula, which gets out the artificial colors (and stems the potential combo with sodium benzoate that leads to hyperactivity), but everything else is still there. I also found a few homepathic remedies, but realized I’m not ready to part with an active ingredient that I know works.  What I want is Tylenol or Motrin Free & Clear.  But it doesn’t exist.  So what’s a healthy green mom to do?

Fortunately, our friend Alexandra Zissu had addressed this question in her “Ask an Organic Mom” blog on the Daily Green and I liked her advice.  It felt very Practically Green:

It depends on your child, but in my experience, infants “need” Tylenol very infrequently. I haven’t found a child’s liquid pain reliever/fever reducer that didn’t contain a whole host of ingredients I would prefer to avoid. Someone should make one, surely there is a market. If there’s an ailment, I first suggest trying natural remedies, home remedies, or even homeopathic remedies (if you know and understand what they are, and are being advised by a trustworthy person). Talk to your pediatrician about what alternative remedies might be available. Nothing works better than honey to soothe a cough, for example, but it can’t be given to children under 1…If and when these don’t work, I do go to Tylenol or Motrin. Whatever you choose to give your baby, pay very careful attention to dosage guidelines and follow them.

So for now, we’ve settled on dye-free and even more prudent use of the stuff. But if anyone from Johnson & Johnson/McNeil Consumer Products is listening, you can do better and our kids deserve it.  So when you finally do launch a Free & Clear version of your products, I want to be first in line.

Author Note:

Susan Hunt Stevens is the Founder of Practically Green, an online service that helps families make healthy and green changes in their daily lives. She and her family live in Newton, Massachusetts.




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