Chemical Exposure during Childhood

Have you ever wondered about what chemicals might be present in the products your children use every day? Do you ever think about what might be in clothing, bedding, accessories, furniture, toys, household items, and personal care items? If you are reading this, you have probable thought about some of these items, but the fact is we still know relatively little about the chemicals we come into contact with every day.

Recent legislation in the state of Washington has set the benchmark for disclosure of what types of products contain potential toxins, even in small amounts. Washington’s Children’s Safe Product Act, enacted in 2008, obligates companies to disclose the use of 66 chemicals complied by US and international agencies, and chosen due to their potential negative health effects, especially in children. “Children are uniquely vulnerable to exposures given their hand-to-mouth behaviors, floor play, and developing nervous and reproductive systems,” stated Sheela Sathyanarayana, MD, a pediatric researcher who advised state officials on the disclosure rules.

The first phase, incorporated last August, required companies with gross annual revenues over $1 million to report chemicals in products that could be put into the mouths of children under 3 years old, and those products that could be put into the mouths or rubbed onto the skin of children under age 12. The second phase, last February, required these companies to report products intended for contact with the skin, such as clothing, jewelry, and bedding.

What this legislation will help to achieve, essentially, is full disclosure of the ingredients used to manufacture products that children come into regular contact with. Some of these ingredients—including cobalt (the most widespread added chemical from the list), ethylene glycol, methyl ethyl ketone, and more—are not on the radar of the public or even of researchers. “Over the years it’s been demonstrated that some of these chemicals are making their way into the bodies of children. We don’t want to wait too long to find out if they cause disease later in life,” stated John Meeker, an associate professor of environmental health who studies the health effects of chemicals at the University of Michigan.

Other states, including New York, Oregon, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, and Minnesota, are considering similar legislation. This is good news. Fortunately, when even one state makes a fuss like this, the whole country finds out about it and then, little by little, change happens. It may feel like drips out of a faucet, but eventually, our voices are heard. News like this keeps me positive despite all the bad news around us.

On that same note, the Environmental Health Perspectives journal recently reported on the environmental exposure education in the childcare setting. Grassroots-like efforts are underway to educate child care providers about environmental health efforts that reduce chemical exposure in the child care setting. These efforts have been growing, drip by drip, and seem to be paying off. But we still have a way to go. Voluntary programs may not be enough, states Vickie Leonard, who is currently involved in developing a green cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfection toolkit for child care centers.

“I think it’s an environmental justice issue, because parents in the middle and upper classes are much more aware of these issues and tend to push for safer environmental practices and products. They can choose where they place their children; poor families usually cannot. For that reason, it seems you’ve got to legislate basic environmental safety in child care,” says Leonard.

I do believe things are changing, based on what I’ve seen over the last couple decades. The change is slow, but sure. I just hope it’s enough. I like to think it is.

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