Kids risk exposure to toxins and environmental hazards – outdoors and indoors, at home and in schools. Paint or carpeting may give off volatile organic compounds. Upholstered furniture sometimes contains flame retardants that are linked to thyroid, liver, or developmental problems. Herbicides, insecticides and other lawn and garden products are associated with environmental contaminations and diseases.
Fortunately, several organizations in Pittsburgh offer resources for families, daycare centers, and schools.
‘1,000 Hours’ campaign
A brand new “1,000 Hours” campaign was just announced by Women for a Healthy Environment and the Green Building Alliance. Funded with $400,000 from The Heinz Endowments, the project encourages schools and day care centers to test for radon and lead in paint, dust, water and soil. The campaign’s name comes from the estimated time that kids spend in school throughout the year.
“It’s our goal to encourage them to test for both hazards,” says Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, WHE executive director. “We’re hoping to raise awareness of the need to test because testing for schools and daycare centers right now is voluntary.”
Pittsburgh Poison Center
Even cautious parents might not realize how quickly a child can be harmed, says toxicologist Michael Lynch, medical director of Pittsburgh Poison Center, He recalls a 2-year-old who drank hydrochloric acid used to unclog a drain when his mother turned away to load laundry in the washing machine.
“Fortunately, it was a small enough amount that it didn’t cause significant injury, but that’s a very common scenario,” says Dr. Lynch. Just a moment’s glance away from a child can give him a chance to get into dangerous products.
The poison center has lots of tips to help parents, such as keeping products in original containers – don’t transfer a small amount of windshield washer fluid to a Gatorade bottle, for example – and placing them on high shelves or in locked cabinets to deter curious toddlers. But some things, such as laundry or dishwasher pods that come in re-sealable bags, should be transferred to containers that are harder to access.
Remind visitors not to leave purses containing cosmetics or medication on the floor. If you child ingests something and becomes unresponsive or stops breathing, call 911. If you are uncertain of a potential poisoning, a nurse specialist answers the poison center’s hotline – 800-222-1222 – 24/7. Dr. Lynch recommends programming the number into your cell phone.
“We want to make sure people take the precautions they can, but are empowered when special circumstances arise,” he says. “No question is too small.”
Women for a Healthy Environment
Women for a Healthy Environment offers resource guides, such as checklists for a healthy home, food ingredients to avoid, and green cleaning solutions. The organization also has public speakers, advocacy initiatives, and a particularly timely Lead in Water Action Page on its website. Using a grant from Colcom Foundation, WHE is distributing pitchers with water filters to family support centers.
Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis emphasizes easy and inexpensive ways to avoid harmful products by using more natural ingredients, such as vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda for greener cleaning, and apple cider vinegar to deter pests.
“When we are discussing some of these issues, people are often surprised,” says Naccarati-Chapkis. “I think one reason is that products are so readily available – things like Raid or fog bombs. … Even if you read the instructions on the label, some people might not realize that studies have shown the chemicals in these products can linger in the air not only for that day but for a year.”
She suggests people use “tried-and-true” things their parents or grandparents used, such as simmering citrus or cloves on the stove to freshen air. Buy cleaner-burning beeswax and soy candles with cotton wicks instead of lead wicks.
“Even making simple changes in our homes can lead to better health, such as reducing allergy and asthma symptoms,” she says.
Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP)
Young lungs can be damaged by dust laden with toxins that are stirred up during home remodeling projects. Outdoor burning and neighborhood construction projects put smoke and dust into the air, says Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution.
“Air pollution is one of the things that can cause asthma and trigger asthma attacks, so finding ways to reduce your child’s exposure to asthma triggers is important to do,” Filippini says. “People think burning wood is natural, benign – how could it be harmful? But a lot of the pollutants in wood smoke are similar to pollutants you would find in cigarette smoke. Children who regularly breathe wood smoke are more likely to develop shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, asthma.”
To educate kids, GASP operates the Environmental Protection Agency’s School Flag Program, providing schools with materials free of charge. Students can check the air quality forecast and string up the appropriately-colored red, orange, yellow or green flag. Middle school students especially are open to lessons on pollution, Filippini says. “It seems to fit best into their curriculum.”
The organization advocates for school bus drivers and delivery trucks to follow Pennsylvania law that limits idling to five minutes in an hour. “That’s something parents can do – check with the principal or school office to see, are they aware the law exists and does the school grounds have appropriate signage to limit idling? Make sure the buses aren’t arriving early and sitting there idling.”
GASP also recommends that people test for radon, a naturally occurring, odorless, colorless, radioactive gas. Exposure to high levels can lead to lung cancer. “While you can’t eliminate the radon that’s in the ground that your house is built on, there are things you can do to mitigate the problem, by adding fans or things like that,” Filippini says. “But you would not know there’s a problem if you don’t test.”
Green & Healthy Schools Academy
Through its Green & Healthy Schools Academy, the Green Building Alliance works with facilities directors, janitorial staffs, and administrators. The idea is to make sure schools are aware of radon, indoor air quality, lead in drinking water, and the need for green cleaning and pest management, says Andrew Ellsworth, GBA’s vice president of health and learning.
Making school leaders aware of environmental exposures that can harm human health is important since your kids spend much of their days in school.
“We’re really trying to get them to understand the topic and then have enough tools that they can do something about it,” Ellsworth says. “There are a lot of schools doing different things, and they may just call it good, common sense. We know a variety of schools are conscientious about air quality and have changed filters, and many are using green cleaning products.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools has an integrated pest management program that became a model for state law, Ellsworth says. The city school district “has been doing green cleaning since the ’90s.
Safe Water Program
Mayor Bill Peduto and the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority recently announced details for the distribution of lead filters to city residents through the Safe Water Program. Priority will be given to those with small children and those with homes affected by partial lead line replacements, but all city residents are eligible to receive the filters.
If you believe your home may have lead in the water, these tips from Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority can help to reduce your exposure:
Run your water to flush out lead.
- If you haven’t used your water for several hours, run your cold tap for one minute before using for cooking or drinking. Homes with longer lead water service lines may require extended flushing. Using toilets, washing clothes, showering, or doing dishes before you drink from your tap are all ways that you can flush your service line without wasting water.
- Use cold water for cooking and preparing baby formula.
- Lead dissolves more easily in hot water. Do not drink, cook with, or make baby formula using hot water.
- Do not boil water to remove lead; it will not reduce lead levels.