October is Children’s Environmental Health Month! Oh, you didn’t know? This month may be better known for ghouls and goblins, but our Lead and Toxics Team has put together a series of blog posts that are sure to give you goosebumps.
By Shirlee Tan, environmental toxicologist and parent to “Kiddo” Tan.
As an environmental health toxicologist, I’m all too aware of the tiny poisons lurking in our everyday items and household products. But, as a parent, I’m particularly concerned about the impacts these toxics – or hazardous chemicals in the environment – have on my kid.
Toxics are everywhere!
Did you know that there are currently over 87,000 chemicals that can be used in products sold in the United States? Only a small percentage of these are formally evaluated for their effects on our health and environment, and we don’t really understand exposures well. For example, 90 percent of the dust in your home is infused with a mixture of toxic chemicals – and we don’t know how all of these chemicals, in combination, affect our health. We can’t avoid being exposed to chemicals, but we can reduce our exposures and work toward better long-term health.
Have you ever thought about the number of chemicals your child encounters on a given day?
Soaps, lotions, furniture, carpets, electronics, vehicles, food and the way these things are produced release chemicals that are dispersed into the environment. Even normal things your child does, like suck on their fingers or crawl on the floor, may expose them to harmful chemicals.
What can you do to protect your kids?
With so many chemicals present in everything we do and touch, we can’t account for everything. But, these tips are a good start.
- Take your shoes off.
The bottom of your shoes might look clean but there are invisible traces of toxics, like pesticides and vehicle exhaust particles, that get a free ride onto the floor of your home where kids play.
- Damp dust/mop and HEPA vacuum weekly.
The dust in your house is a reflection of the toxics in and around your home – air fresheners, pet dander, carpet/couch fibers carrying flame retardants, pesticides, the demolition next door, lead paint particles, and mold spores are just a few things your dust is carrying. The more dust in your home, the greater your chance of breathing and ingesting the toxics that dust secretly contains. Check out a recent study on what’s in dust.
- Educate yourself about product labels.
What you buy makes a difference! Even the things you clean with can release harmful chemicals. There are so many chemicals and products that it can be hard to know where to start. But, some simple rules of thumb include:
- Avoid plastic products/toys when possible (especially heating them for food or drinks).
- Buy organic food and materials when you can.
- Keep it simple! Buy products with fewer ingredients or make your own.
- The Environmental Working Group has some helpful consumer guides that can steer you toward safer products.
- Wash hands before eating and after playing.
Hands are like feet, and whatever you touch stays with you! Did you know that kids ingest more chemicals from licking their hands than from putting toxic products in their mouths? Kids touch a LOT of things that add to the “chemical soup” in their bodies. It’s always a good idea to have them wash their hands if you think they’ve touched something containing toxic chemicals (like paint dust with lead on window sill or arsenic on old wooden playsets).
- Use this do-it-yourself green clean recipe at home!
All purpose cleaner:
- 3 parts water
- 1 part vinegar
- 1-2 tsp lemon juice
- 5-7 drops of essential oil (e.g., lemon or orange)
Add to a clean spray bottle and use to clean all surfaces in your home!
Why are children especially at risk?
Our kids are more vulnerable because they breathe and eat more for their body size, they’re still growing and developing, they spend more time close to the ground, and they are constantly putting things in their mouths. As adults, we can make some individual decisions about how we interact with the world around us. We can choose to do things like wash our hands, steer clear of second-hand smoke, and if we can afford it, buy products with fewer toxic substances. But, children have far less choice about which environmental hazards they encounter, and they are more vulnerable to their impacts. They look to adults to keep them safe.
What is Public Health’s role in protecting kids from toxics?
It is our job to understand how toxics in our surroundings impact equity and social justice across King County. Inequities in quality of housing, work conditions, and proximity to major roads and industries can increase exposure to harmful chemicals. Often the poorest populations are most impacted by chemical pollutants and have fewer resources to prevent exposures.
This is why Public Health – Seattle & King County’s Environmental Health Division is part of the Best Starts for Kids Initiative that is working to improve the health and well-being, investing in prevention and early intervention for children, youth, families, and communities. We are working with our Lead and Toxics team to reduce toxic exposures that lead to diseases later in life like cancer, diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and lower workplace productivity by creating healthy and safe environments.
Even for us, understanding toxics and how they interact in our county is a challenge because there isn’t enough research or data. State and Local Governments are responsible for developing policies and programs that protect residents from chemical hazards. We want you to be more aware of these issues in your communities. This helps us better work on your behalf to prevent exposures and minimize their effects.
Originally posted October 5, 2017.