Protecting Children From Toxics

Toys and other products that children play with, put in their mouths, wear or use on their bodies can contain a variety of chemicals that can impact their health. Since young children play close to the ground, they come into contact with contaminated dust from surfaces and carpets indoors as well as contaminated soil outdoors. When it comes to toxic chemicals, children do not simply respond like miniature adults. Their developing bodies and relative body size make them more vulnerable to the effects of chemicals, when compared to adults. Let’s take a look at a few chemicals that children are often exposed to and which may result in health impacts:

BPA in food packaging: Bisphenol (A) or BPA is a synthetic chemical used to manufacture hard plastic products and can be present in plastics marked with the number  “3” (polyvinyl chloride) and “7" (polycarbonate plastic). BPA is used to manufacture many children’s products, such as reusable plastic water bottles, dental sealant, lining of aluminum food cans. BPA has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, endocrine dysfunction and obesity in adults, as well as brain and hormonal abnormalities in fetuses and young children. More information on legislative actions and safer alternatives is available here.

Phthalates in children’s toys: Phthalates are used to make children’s products made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic marked with the number  “3” soft and flexible. Some examples of PVC products include rubber duckies, teething rings, and bath toys. Studies show that phthalates cause premature birth and reproductive harm, such as sperm damage and reduced testosterone. Phthalates are also found in many personal care products marketed to children. Since, phthalates are not often listed on the label and can be disguised as “fragrance” or “parfum”, it is best to choose fragrance free products that do not have phthalates listed on the product label. More information on legislative action and safer alternatives is available here.

Mercury in seafood: Mercury is a naturally occurring heavy metal that is persistent in the environment and toxic to humans. Mercury released from mining operations and coal burning enters water bodies and ends up in seafood we consume. Because of the high toxicity of mercury, the State of California has released consumption guidelines to restrict the amount of mercury that can accumulate in children and adults. More information on safe consumption of seafood is available here and here.

Pesticides at home: Children become exposed to pesticides through insect repellant and insecticides used in the household as well as through food. Pesticides may harm a developing child by blocking the absorption of important food nutrients necessary for normal healthy growth. They may harm a child whose excretory system is not fully developed and unable to remove pesticides. In addition, exposure to chemicals during "critical periods" in human development can permanently alter the way the biological system operates. To prevent exposure, it is important to use an integrated pest management approach and choose organic produce with low to no pesticides whenever possible.

Arsenic in play structures: Arsenic is a known human carcinogen. Although the United States stopped producing arsenic in 1985, an arsenic based wood preservative called chromated copper arsenate was used to make "pressure-treated" lumber for outdoor use, including play structures. To reduce exposure to Arsenic, San Francisco adopted a Citywide ban in 2003 (Environmental Code: Chapter 13) on installation of new Arsenic treated play structures and ordered that play structures containing Arsenic be sealed.

Lead, Cadmium and heavy metals in jewelry and products: Children’s products sometimes contain lead, cadmium, antimony, hexavalent chromium and other heavy metals. Due to health impacts from these chemicals, Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and State & local governments monitor children's products for these chemicals. Jewelry containing lead can no longer be sold in California and products containing cancer causing agents are required to post Proposition 65 warning signs. To prevent exposure, monitor CPSC’s website for product recalls and ensure that any lead paint in your home is safely removed by a certified contractor.

Fire retardant chemicals in furniture and clothing: California flammability standard (TB 117) requires the use of fire retardant chemicals in furniture and electronics. When tested in animals, common fire retardant chemicals, such as Polybrominated Diphenly Ethers (PBDEs), at low doses were found to cause endocrine disruption, thyroid disorders, cancer, and developmental, reproductive, and neurological problems such as learning impairment and attention deficit disorder. To reduce exposure to fire retardants it is important to wash hands regularly, choose safer products (foam products made after 2004) and use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter. More tips are available here.

Chemicals in personal care products and cleaning products: Ingredients in the products we apply to the skin of our infants and children are readily absorbed into their bodies. Some of these chemicals are retained in the body longer than chemicals absorbed from food or from the air.  Several of these chemicals impact developing systems. For instance, some children's products contain formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. Choose safer personal care products to reduce exposure.

Chemicals in art supplies: Glues, adhesives, markers, crayons and other hobby materials present health and safety risk to children through inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact. Read more here.

Additional Information for Protecting Children From Toxics

Environmental Working Group
provides additional information about children's health and recommendations to reduce children's exposure to toxics.
EPA's Child-Specific Exposure Factors Handbook
highlights child-specific exposure factors and presents a summary of the recommendations.
Highlights of the Child-Specific Exposure Factors Handbook
provides some introductory information about the handbook and presents a summary of the recommendations presented in the Child-Specific Exposure Factors Handbook (CSEFH).