July 1, 2010

From the Summer 2010 Issue of Play + Parenting, newsletter of the Canadian Association of Family Resource Programs (FRP Canada)

When you plan the space for your family resource program, you think about how to make it childproof so that children can play safely. You make lists of materials and equipment that you’ll stock it with to stimulate children’s learning and development. You want to show parents how they can do some of the same things at home. It’s just as important to think about the purchases you make in terms of the safety of the chemicals people in your centre will be exposed to, particularly those little people.

The Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE) recently presented a teleconference briefing on this subject in conjuction with the Canadian Child Care Federation and the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Entitled “Buying Safer Products for your Child Care Centre,” it included information that will be useful to family resource programs as well.

Children are at greater risk
Any place where children spend time needs to pay special attention to chemicals in the environment. Because children’s bodies are growing and changing, they are especially vulnerable. Also, relative to their size, children take in more air, food and liquid than adults do. Because they touch more surfaces and frequently put their hands in their mouth, they are more exposed to contaminants in dust and soil.

Some toys contain chemicals that may be harmful to children. Avoid toys painted with paint containing lead. Children may put these in their mouth, and lead is toxic to the brain. Lead has also been identified in metal objects like inexpensive play jewellery. Watch for objects that feel heavy for their size.

Other dangerous chemicals are the phthalates found in some plastics. They are used to make soft plastics, like those in many inflatable water toys. Look for phthalate-free and PVC-free toys. Check the Health Canada Consumer Product Safety Website (www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/index-eng.php) for regular updates and subscribe to the e-mail list by writing cpsn-subscribe-request@list.hc-sc.gc.ca.

Arts and crafts materials
Avoid craft materials in powder form that can easily disperse in the air and be breathed in. Even if you mix powders when children aren’t present, they can deposit themselves on surfaces that children may touch later. Be aware that “non-toxic” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as “intended for use by children.” The “AP” seal from the American Arts and Creative Materials Institute gives some assurance of safety.

Soaps and cleaning products
Proper handwashing with plain soap and water removes most germs. Antibacterial hand soaps are not necessary. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers should only be used when you can’t get to a sink. For disinfection of surfaces, follow the procedures required by your local public health authority. For regular cleaning, use a product with the fewest hazard symbols. Plain, unscented soap or detergent will usually do the job. the fact that a product is “natural,” like tea tree or lavender oil, doesn’t necessarily mean it can be used with children.

What kind of dishes do you use to serve children their snack? Many centres opt for plastic because it is not breakable, but do you know what type of plastic your dishes are made of? The Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE) recommends using glass, lead-free ceramic or stainless steel for dishes and food storage containers, if possible. If you choose plastic, the recommendation is for polypropylene (#5). Plastic dishes should never be warmed in a microwave, and hot food should not be stored in plastic.

If you are considering replacing your flooring, look for a smooth, hard surface. Avoid vinyl flooring because of its potential for containing PVC and phthalates. Many sleeping mats are also covered with vinyl. If you use them, air them outdoors for several days before bringing them indoors, and then cover them with a washable fabric.

Be a model
The recommendations of the CPCHE are aimed principally at child care centres where young, growing children may spend much of their time. Children may spend only short periods in your family resource centre, but the products that you use also send a message to parents. They may well see the purchases you make as a recommendation and endorsement of products that they should also use with their children. This is a chance for you to educate parents about good choices concerning the chemicals in their home environment.

More information
This article touches on only a few points that are covered in depth in documents published by the CPCHE. In particular, a two-page fact sheet entitled “Playing It Safe: Buying Products for the Child Care Centre” was the basis for this article. Other titles include “Playing It Safe: Childproofing for Environmental Health” (aimed at parents) and “Advancing Environmental Health in Child Care Settings” (aimed at practitioners and public health inspectors). All of these documents can be downloaded from www.healthyenvironmentforkids.ca.