Creating Healthy Home Environments for Kids: Top 5 Tips

CPCHE’s video, brochure and tip cards provide families and expectant parents with practical, low-cost tips for reducing children’s exposures to toxic chemicals in the home

BPA. Phthalates. Flame retardants. Lead. Parents are increasingly concerned about the potential effects of these and other toxic chemicals on the health of their children. CPCHE’s new series of outreach materials offers five simple, low-cost tips that families and expectant parents can take to reduce exposures to toxic substances commonly found in the home. The popular “Creating Healthy Environments for Kids” brochure, which features CPCHE’s “top 5 tips,” was launched in June 2011 in collaboration with Today’s Parent magazine. CPCHE’s new video “Creating Healthy Home Environments for Kids: Top 5 Tips” was developed and pilot-tested in collaboration with public health departments and community centres throughout Ontario, and was launched at the Best Start Resource Centre’s annual conference in February 2012. This outreach initiative is supported by a sponsorship from the Government of Ontario, and is led by the Ontario College of Family Physicians as the lead CPCHE partner.

Publications and On-line Resources

CPCHE’s suite of “top 5 tips” outreach materials includes a 13-minute illustrated YouTube video, a 4-panel brochure and tip-specific rack cards:

  1. Creating Healthy Home Environments for Kids: Top 5 Tips:
    March 2012, Video

     
  2. Creating Healthy Environments for Kids
    June 2011, Brochure
  3. Bust That Dust
    February 2012, Rack Card
  4. Dish Safer Fish
    February 2012, Rack Card
  5. Go Green When You Clean
    February 2012, Rack Card
  6. Get Drastic With Plastic
    February 2012, Rack Card
  7. Renovate Right
    February 2012, Rack Card

Frequently Asked Questions

The #7 symbol is confusing. How can I tell which containers labelled #7 contain Bisphenol A? What about hard plastic containers with no number on them at all?

Category:  Plastics Answer: 

The #7 recycling symbol is a 7 contained within a triangle, often made of arrows. Unfortunately, the #7 symbol gets used as a catch-all category for various plastics that are not included within categories 1 though 6. It is definitely used to label the hard, shatterproof polycarbonate plastic that contains Bisphenol A (e.g., in baby bottles, water bottles, etc.). These containers may also have the letters PC (for polycarbonate) below the triangular symbol. For other containers that are made from similarly hard, shatterproof plastic but that do not have any recycling symbol, they are very likely to be polycarbonate plastic containing Bisphenol A.

The #7 symbol is also used to label biodegradable plastics made from soy or corn. These are slightly pliable, often clear and lightweight containers. They tend to be used for packaging foods like dried fruits or nuts. On these containers, the #7 symbol may also have the letters “PLA” below it and such plastics are also often labelled as biodegradable, which is accurate. They do not contain Bisphenol A.

Finally, on some plastics, the #7 symbol may have the word “Other” below it. These may be polycarbonate (and contain Bisphenol A) and maybe not. Two common variations that probably do not contain Bisphenol A include pliable packaging used to “shrink-wrap” frozen foods and single serving containers for fruit or puddings. These single serving containers are also slightly pliable. You can call the manufacturer for such products to find out for sure. Or, choose plastics labelled with the numbers 2, 4 or 5. See the Smart Plastic Guide for more information on choosing among different plastics.

Other container options exist as well. Glass and tin cans are more easily recycled. But, many cans are also lined with a white coating containing Bisphenol A. Since this is not always the case, you can seek out brands that are simply traditional metal cans with no lining. You need to buy them first to find out or you can call the manufacturers. In the absence of adequate regulation to eliminate Bisphenol A from tin can linings, it is important for consumers to exert pressure on manufacturers to discontinue its use. The use of these plastic-based linings in cans is simply for extending shelf-life.

Answer Author:  Kathleen Cooper, Canadian Environmental Law Association

What are the risks to my child if I use household cleaning products? Are there alternatives?

Category:  Consumer Products Answer: 

Children can be sensitive to the chemicals in everyday cleaning products, especially if they have allergies or asthma. Because children spend 80% to 90% of their time indoors, cleaning products can pose health risks for them.
Household cleaning products can add to indoor air pollution in many ways:

  • They send toxins out into the air when they are used.
  • Residue can be left on indoor surfaces (like the floors and tables).
  • They gradually send toxins out into the home when they’re stored.

The strong chemicals in cleaning products may cause even more cleaning power than what is needed. Some of these products are strong poisons and others contain ingredients that may be toxic.

Products that are poisonous or corrosive (can burn holes in clothes and eat away layers of skin) are marked with hazard symbols. But these warnings are only used for the most dangerous ingredients. This is a big problem because:

  • Many more chemicals are used that aren’t as deadly but can still make you sick
  • Most haven’t been fully tested for safety (for long-term, low-level, and multiple-exposures)
  • Some may be harmful to babies in the womb.
  • Some may be harmful to children at different stages of development.

Safer products are often available and should be used instead.

Organic Solvents

Avoid organic solvents, especially if you are pregnant – they can be dangerous to a developing foetus. Organic solvents may be responsible for causing birth defects and harming a foetus’s developing nervous system. Organic solvents evaporate at room temperature and you can easily smell them (for example, nail polish remover). Solvents are found in many common products like spot removers and other cleaners and disinfectants, in dry-cleaning chemicals, degreasers, aerosol sprays, cosmetics and paint strippers. They enter into the body through the skin, lungs and gut, and are spread to various body tissues, including the placenta. They are drawn to fatty tissues, including breast milk.

Dry cleaning

Children can also be more sensitive to the chemicals used in dry cleaning. Ask yourself if dry cleaning is really necessary for certain clothes and household items. If it is necessary, find a service that uses non-toxic methods. Ask your dry cleaner about the chemicals they use. Don’t use a drycleaner that uses perchloroethylene. If you’re not sure about the chemical your drycleaner uses, hang all dry cleaned items outdoors or in a well-ventilated location for at least two hours before you store it indoors.

Avoid disinfection “overkill”

Many soaps and other cleaning products are marketed as “anti-bacterial.” Like “disinfecting” sprays, these products may contain pesticides that kill bacteria. Bacteria and disease transmission is a real threat in some situations such as in backed-up sewers or if you’re cleaning up after handling raw meats (although very hot, soapy water and good kitchen hygiene works too), but over-using bacteria-killing products may interfere with the development of a child’s healthy immune system.

Choose “green” or non-toxic cleaning products

“Green” or non-toxic cleaning products are widely available. Try to avoid cleaning products that have chlorine bleach or other chlorine-based chemicals. Chlorine is good for cleaning dirt and killing germs but it’s also very toxic. Chlorine reacts with organic material and other chemicals and can create long-lived toxic chemicals that:

  • can pollute indoor air
  • stay on surfaces
  • are flushed into local waterways.

There are other effective cleaning products that use ingredients that come from natural sources and aren’t chlorine-based. Information is also available for making your own non-toxic cleaning products.

Answer Author:  Kathleen Cooper, Canadian Environmental Law Association (originally written for the no longer operational Canadian Health Network website)

Should I use antibacterial soaps?

Category:  Personal Care Products Answer: 

No. Doctors recommend against using antibacterial soaps. According to the Canadian Medical Association, the use of these products may cause germs to become more resistant to antibiotics. The CMA General Council passed a resolution in 2009 calling for a ban on household antibacterial products (see the CMA resolution below).

Antibacterial soaps are also unnecessary.  Washing hands thoroughly with regular soap and water is all that is needed. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are the next best alternative when a sink is not available. Read the label. Watch for words like “anti-bacterial,” “anti-microbial,” or “bacteria-fighting” and avoid these products.

Antibacterial (or “antimicrobial”) products often contain triclosan, a chemical suspected of disrupting normal hormone function. 

Resolution 74 adopted by the General Council of the Canadian Medical Association, August 2009: “The Canadian Medical Association calls upon the federal government to ban the sale of household antibacterial products due to the risk of bacterial resistance and to recognize that soap and alcohol-based solutions are as effective in preventing household infection.”

Answer Author:  Erica Phipps, Randee Holmes, Kathleen Cooper

Should I use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer on my child?

Category:  Personal Care Products Answer: 

Doctors recommend washing hands with regular soap and water and to avoid anti-bacterial products (please see our FAQ about antibacterial soaps).

When a sink is not available, for cleaning hands that are visibly dirty, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not as effective as soap and water. But, alcohol-based hand sanitizers still kill microorganisms, which makes them the next best alternative. However, they can be harmful if swallowed.

To be effective, alcohol-based hand sanitizers should contain 60 to 90 per cent alcohol. Ingesting as little as two to three teaspoons (10–15 mL) can cause a small child (20–30 lbs, or 10–15 kg) to to become inebriated. It is important to supervise children closely while these products are being used.

Absorption of the alcohol through the skin is not a concern. If alcohol-based sanitizers are used, consider the following:

  • A single squirt the size of a dime is all that is needed.
  • For young children, dispense the product into your own hands, then rub the surfaces of the child’s hands between yours until fully dry, usually 10–15 seconds.
  • Make sure that children do not lick the wet product off their hands.
  • Scented hand sanitizers, particularly those with fruity scents that may entice a child to ingest the product, should be avoided.
  • Make sure that children’s hands are dry (i.e., the product has evaporated) before giving children food or drink.
  • For hands that are still visibly dirty, wash as soon as possible with soap and water.
  • When not in use, hand sanitizers should be kept in a secure location.

Answer Author:  Erica Phipps

I am expecting a baby and want to prepare the baby’s room. Are there any safe products for me to use?

Category:  Renovate Right Answer: 

Even though it is a very common thing to fix up the baby’s room when you are expecting, we actually recommend that you avoid all home renovation work when you are pregnant. You already know that your developing fetus is at risk if you smoke, drink alcohol, or take drugs. Likewise, toxic substances in the environment like lead or solvents also create health risks for a developing fetus. These and other toxic substances can occur at very high levels during home renovation and repair activities, especially in older pre-1990 homes.

  • Renovations and repair work can create dust containing high levels of lead. Other toxic substances in airborne or settled dust may include asbestos, PCBs, and toxic flame retardants.
  • New building materials, insulation, paints, caulking, and sealants may give off Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs often have a strong chemical smell. Some VOCs, such as formaldehyde, are very toxic, and many others can have harmful health effects.
  • Normal house dust is already a key source of exposure for children to toxic substances. Renovation and repair activities, especially in pre-1990 homes, can greatly increase levels of toxic substances in dust.

Ask yourself if the work is really necessary or let someone else to do it. Stay away while the work is going on, and make sure your home has been well aired-out and is as dust-free as possible before you come back. Be sure that the person doing the work follows best practices.

What are the safest products to use when I am repairing or renovating my home?

Category:  Renovate Right Answer: 

There is a growing demand for lower-risk or no-risk building materials as well as those that are “green” and “energy efficient.” However, many factors come into play in making such choices such as the source materials, energy inputs during manufacture, the potential for release of toxic substances during and after installation, among many others.

Guides and rating systems are being developed and can be found on-line. One example is The Pharos Project (www.pharosproject.net) that screens and ranks materials according to their impacts. It excludes building products from its approved list if they contain certain toxic substances.

During routine renovation and retrofit projects there can sometimes be no alternative to using products that contain toxic substances such as solvents or caulking that have strong odours. For containers with hazard symbols and warnings be sure to read the labels and carefully follow use and disposal instructions.

Some general guidelines when you are thinking about products to use in your home renovations and repairs: 

  • Choose hard flooring instead of carpeting. Hard flooring, such as wood, linoleum, vinyl, laminate, or tile, is easier to clean and to keep dust-free. 
  • Choose factory-finished wood instead of wood that has to be finished after it is installed in your home to reduce the release of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
  • Choose low VOC or VOC-free paints.
  • Compare products and seek those with the least hazard symbols or no hazard symbols at all. Products marked with the symbol for “corrosive” and the symbol for “poison” are the most likely to release toxic fumes when used.

Whatever products you choose to use, always seal containers well and keep them in a locked cupboard out of the reach of children. And read the label instructions every time you use or re-use the product.