Karen Garloch

Help for kids in a toxic world

One in six children has a neurological, developmental or behavioral disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One in six is overweight. One in 26 has food allergies. One in 150 is diagnosed with autism.

“We have something going wrong,” said Maureen McDonnell, a nurse and organizer of the recent “Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet” conference in Charlotte.

“We're seeing epidemics of children's conditions,” she said, “and after 31 years of being a pediatric nurse, I really feel that most of these conditions are preventable.”

McDonnell spoke at the Charlotte Convention Center before an audience of mostly mothers who were hungry for information about protecting their children from bad food and chemicals.

During the three-day weekend, about 750 people strolled past exhibits of water filters, vitamins and organic toys. They read promotions for “natural” treatments for autism, asthma and attention deficit disorder. They heard experts in nutrition, environment and medicine offer advice on raising kids in a “toxic world.”

Ten years ago, McDonnell organized another conference, called Defeat Autism Now, which taught parents about the possible connection between autism and mercury in vaccines and introduced them to unconventional treatments, such as biofeedback and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Many of these therapies and theories are controversial and widely criticized by mainstream medical experts who say the claims have not been validated by scientific research. Advocates such as McDonnell counter that most traditional doctors don't understand basic nutrition and are trained in a medical system that is supported by pharmaceutical companies.

The Charlotte conference was McDonnell's first on the broader themes of nutrition, environment and safe vaccines. She collaborated with Charlottean Jill Urwick, who has used natural interventions to treat her two children, one with autism and one with ADHD.

“What pediatricians offer parents is very limited,” McDonnell said. “When it comes to important, concrete information on raising kids in this toxic world, they're in the dark ages. There are very few ‘green' pediatricians out there.”

So, McDonnell and Urwick brought a “holistically oriented” pediatrician from Virginia, Dr. Elizabeth Mumper, to speak to parents about resisting traditional medicine's “one-size-fits all” approach to childhood vaccinations.

Environmental activist Dierdre Imus, author of “Growing Up Green,” advocated the use of “green cleaning products” in homes, schools and hospitals.

And nutritionist Julie Matthews of San Francisco outlined appealing ways to prepare healthy meals and snacks.

While Imus, who's a vegan, advised the audience to avoid all fish because of mercury contamination, McDonnell offered a less extreme approach. “You don't want to feel defeated before you even get started,” McDonnell said.

Change one thing at a time, she suggested. Read a book about “green” living. Buy a few organic foods. Recycle more. Grow your own vegetables.

“Everybody takes it to the level that they need to take it to,” McDonnell said. “There's a way to make good choices and not have the concept overtake your life.”