SIDS: A Preventable Tragedy
By Dale Peterson, MD – Building Health
I received a heartbreaking e-Mail message recently. It read, “My granddaughter died last month of SIDS and our family is devastated. My daughter and son-in-law did everything “right.” Supposedly the issue that placed my precious baby in the high-risk category was that she was born 6 weeks early. Her parents didn’t smoke, she always slept on her back, and she was breastfed. She seemed to be healthy and thriving. I just don’t understand and expect that I never will. I hope the medical community can figure something out, but this will never bring back our precious girl.”
Sudden infant death syndrome is the name applied to a situation in which an apparently normal infant is found dead in his or her bed. It is often referred to as “crib death.” A logical and preventable cause has been advanced by chemists, but their work has failed to gain acceptance within the medical community, and parents are generally unaware of a simple and inexpensive measure that has been shown to be highly effective in preventing SIDS.
The story begins in Italy over 100 years ago. During the early 1890s a mysterious epidemic took the lives of over one thousand people, predominantly infants who had been crawling or sleeping on the floor. Medical examiners were stumped. The bodies showed no sign of struggle, abuse, infection or birth defects. The only clue was the presence of arsenic, but it was inconceivable that such a large number of people, particularly young children, would have been murdered.
In 1893 an Italian chemist, Gosio, was called upon to investigate. Gosio chose to examine the homes in which the deaths had occurred. Most were affluent and well furnished. All had wallpaper or fabrics in a popular and expensive shade of green known as “Paris Green” a form of “Sheele’s Green”. Sheele, a Swedish chemist, had invented the pigment in 1770 using copper arsenite.
Gosio also observed that mildew was present in each of the homes. His research demonstrated that the molds causing the mildew had the ability to break down the copper arsenite into arsine, a highly poisonous gas. Arsine, being heavier than air, became concentrated near the floor where infants and young children succumbed to its effects.
In the early 1980s New Zealand had one of the highest rates of SIDS in the world. It was especially high in babies who slept on sheepskins. Observing mildew in the sheepskins, Jim Sprott, a chemist, suggested in 1985 that the deaths might be due to the presence of a toxic gas similar to that responsible for the deaths of Italian children nearly a century before. A few years later Dr. Sprott’s obsevations were confirmed by an English chemist, B. A. Richardson, who examined 200 mattresses and found mildew in 100% of them.
Crib mattresses began to be manufactured from inexpensive polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in the early 1950s, when the incidence of crib death began to rise. Because PVC is highly flammable, flame retardant chemicals including arsenic, antimony and phosphorus are commonly added. All are subject to breakdown and conversion to gas by molds. Arsine, stibine, and phosphine, the gaseous forms of arsenic, antimony and phosphorus, are highly toxic. Small amounts can disrupt the function of the nervous system resulting in respiratory paralysis – an inability to breathe.
Dr. Richardson was unable to demonstrate the presence of arsine in the mildewed mattresses, but he was able to find stibine. Other researchers have since demonstrated the presence of arsine and phosphine in mildewed mattresses. An examination of the livers of infants dying unexpectedly was carried out in England. High antimony levels were found. High levels of antimony were also found in their surviving siblings. Such levels were not present in infants dying from identifiable causes.
Armed with this information, Jim Sprott reasoned that wrapping crib mattresses with polyethylene to prevent toxic gases from entering the air surrounding a sleeping infant could prevent cot deaths. A New Zealand mattress wrapping campaign was launched in 1995. It has resulted in a 60 % drop in SIDS deaths in the country.
To date over 196,000 infants are known to have slept on wrapped mattresses without a single SIDS death being reported. Since approximately 920 crib deaths would have been expected among them, the probability that mattress wrapping is effective in preventing crib death is a billion times greater than that normally needed for the acceptance of a medical hypothesis. The refusal of physicians and SIDS support organizations to endorse mattress wrapping is tragic and inexcusable.
Fortunately, parents need not wait for universal acceptance of Dr. Sprott’s theory to protect their newborns. Polyethylene mattress wrappers are available from several online sources. I purchased a mattress wrap for my newborn granddaughter four years ago. It is covering the crib mattress of her infant cousin today. I encourage other parents or grandparents to do the same, and I look forward to the time when SIDS joins the Paris Green deaths as a nearly forgotten episode in the history of medicine.
Dr. Dale Peterson is a graduate of the University of Minnesota College of Medicine. He completed his residency in FamilyMedicine at the University of Oklahoma. He is a past president of the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians. He had a full-time family practice in Edmond, Oklahoma, for over 20 years and was a Chief of Staff of the Edmond Hospital. He was active in teachingfor many years as a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine through the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center.
Dr. Peterson left his full-time family practice in 1999 to consult with individuals who are seeking ways to restore and maintain their health through improved nutrition and other lifestyle changes. He founded the Wellness Clubs of America to give people access to credible information on supporting and maintaining their health. His monthly wellness letter, Health by Design, and his Health by Design E-Newsletter provide helpful information to individuals interested in preventing and conquering health challenges. His book Building Health by Design: Adding Life to Your Years and Years to Your Life was released in December 2010.
Dr. Peterson speaks regularly on subjects related to health and nutrition. He hosted a weekly radio program,Your Health Matters, on KTOK in Oklahoma City for five years. For the past nine years he has addressed questions from across the nation on his Your Health Matters weekly teleconference.He offers a free video LifeXtension course at www.drdalepeterson.com.
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