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How to Have a Non-toxic Preschool

December 26, 2012


There's a lot of overkill in child care centers. To have cleaning-fluid smells all over your child care setting is not a good thing.

Donna Green

Contra Costa County Child Care Council

When Susan JunFish was searching for a preschool in Contra Costa County for her son, what she found frightened her.

JunFish discovered significant environmental hazards at nearly half of the almost 20 schools she visited. At one well-regarded school, she recalls, a ceiling containing asbestos — a material that causes severe lung disease — had been cut open and left uncovered. At another, children were polishing silver with a toxic cleaner, as children at that school had done for 15 years.

JunFish, who used to work for the Environmental Protection Agency, ended up establishing the nonprofit Parents for a Safer Environment in order to teach people how to make preschools safer.

“I started this work because I couldn’t believe what was happening in preschools — there’s a huge lack of resources and information,” JunFish says. “I know that those in the field love children, and if they knew more, they’d be giving them the best environment.”

Children’s developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxins than those of adults, JunFish says. And they’re more likely to get toxins into their bodies. Their hands are on everything and then go in their mouths — an average of ten times an hour, according to one study.

In order to have a safer preschool environment, here is a guide on eliminating environmental hazards.

Monitor your maintenance and avoid common hazards

Asbestos: When JunFish visited a school with exposed asbestos, it turned out that the school director knew there was asbestos in the ceiling. She even knew she needed a certified contractor to handle it — but the plumber who cut the hole did not. With no set procedure for construction projects, there’d been a breakdown in communication.

“It was terrible,” says JunFish. “Four-year-olds were having class under the hole.”

Lead: To control lead, keep your facility clean — wiping down with a wet rag will do the trick — and have any remodeling work done by a professional who will test for lead and then contain it. Schools should also test playground soil for lead. Dirt around buildings often has a high lead content from paint chips that have crumbled into the soil. If you find that the dirt around your building has a high lead content, you can plant dense shrubs there so the children will not play in the dirt.

“Lead can be anywhere,” says Marsha Sherman of the Child Care Health Program and a long-time health educator. “And you know how kids like to stand at the windows and chew on the window sills.”

Tips for cleaning

Use less-or no-bleach. Many child care providers and even some licensing inspectors believe bleach is required for cleaning preschool facilities. In fact, it’s only mandated for disinfecting fecal-contaminated areas in infant care centers. For facilities that serve only older children, it’s simply not necessary — and it can be dangerous.

Sodium hypochlorite, or household bleach, breaks down into known cancer-causing chemicals like dioxin and chloramines, according to JunFish. She adds that an over-concentration of bleach is one of the most common mistakes in child care settings. If you do use bleach, a standard-size, 26-fluid-oz. spray bottle of water should contain just two teaspoons of bleach. A gallon of water to wash the floor requires just a quarter cup of bleach to do its job.

Clean when kids aren’t there. Spraying household cleaning supplies when the kids are around might satisfy parents who think it’ll keep their kids from getting sick, but most contain chemicals that are unhealthy, especially for children’s developing bodies. When you are cleaning, spray close to the surface or directly onto your rag so less goes into the air.

“There’s a lot of overkill in child care centers,” says Donna Green of the Contra Costa County Child Care Council. “To have cleaning-fluid smells all over your child care setting is not a good thing.”

Use safer cleaners. A cleaning chemical has to be proven hazardous before it’s removed from the market, but most ingredients in cleaning supplies are untested — no one knows exactly how they affect the human body. Look for cleaners that are biodegradable and non-toxic and don’t contain EDTA or NTA, which are suspected of causing cancer.

Choose safer, simpler alternatives. For example, to clean glass or surfaces, put ¼ cup (or 2 oz.) vinegar, with an optional squirt of lemon juice, into 26-oz. spray bottle with water. You can add ½ teaspoon of vegetable oil if you’re cleaning something really dirty. To wash floors, you can use one or two tablespoons of vegetable soap (available at natural food stores) and ¼ cup of vinegar in a bucket of water — then rinse with water.

Avoid pesticides, both in the yard and inside

Outside, plant native, pest-resistant plants and use non-toxic methods of pest control, like copper wire to keep out snails or hand-pulling (it’s a good activity for the kids) to control weeds.

Inside, keep food areas clean and dry to avoid attracting ants and other pests. Practice “Integrated Pest Management,” an approach that uses non-toxic strategies like these to control pests.

Check out your food

Try to provide foods that are free of preservatives, colorings and additives, less processed and more natural — organic if you can afford it.

Put someone in charge

Environmental safety is an ongoing process, so put someone on your staff in charge of learning about safer alternatives. Look at what’s in your cleaning cabinet, at your art supplies, keep an eye on what’s going on around the facility.

Originally written by Eve Pearlman.