Dear EarthTalk: How can we keep our kids safe from environmental hazards all around us in our everyday lives?
—Jennifer Nichols, Wareham, MA
Children are affected by the same environmental hazards as adults, only they’re more vulnerable given their smaller size and the fact that their bodies are still developing. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), harmful exposures can start as early as in utero.
“Proportionate to their size, children ingest more food, drink more water and breathe more air than adults,” reports WHO. “Additionally, certain modes of behavior, such as putting hands and objects into the mouth and playing outdoors can increase children’s exposure to environmental contaminants.”
Some of the most common contaminants we should be vigilant about avoiding include pesticides (in foods), lead (in old paint), asbestos (in insulation and construction materials), BPA (in plastic food/drink containers and the lining of cans), PFCs (in non-stick cookware, carpeting and mattresses) and flame retardants (in furniture and drapery). And, of course, many branded household cleaners contain potentially hazardous ingredients (bleach, ammonia, diethanolamine, triethanolamine) as well.
Given how common these elements are in today’s world, keeping kids safe isn’t an easy task. For starters, choose organic food and drink whenever possible to cut down on the pesticides your kids ingest. While pesticides work well to keep away the bugs that can ruin harvests, they also can cause neurological and reproductive problems for humans who ingest traces of them. Apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, nectarines, grapes, bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce and kale/collard greens are the worst offenders in the produce aisle, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), so definitely spring for organic versions of these particular fruits and veggies. Packaged and processed foods likely contain plenty of pesticide residues, too, unless they are marked as certified organic.
To avoid household cleaners, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) recommends ditching the expensive specialized products that likely contain harmful chemical additives. “A few safe, simple ingredients like soap, water, baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice and borax, aided by a little elbow grease and a coarse sponge for scrubbing, can take care of most household cleaning needs.” Look for specific formulations on organicconsumers.org, as well as links to some environmentally friendly name-brand household cleaners.
While there is less we can do individually about air pollution if we want our kids to spend time outdoors, at the macro level we can all help by driving our cars less and turning down our thermostats (to reduce the emissions we cause) and ordering less stuff online (to cut down on air pollution from shipping).
Parents, teachers and caregivers should educate themselves about what to avoid and become expert label readers so they can make health-smart choices. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) is urging pediatricians to take a greater interest in the environmental impacts on the health of their patients and discuss with parents how to keep kids safe in and around the home, the neighborhood, and at school.