Let’s Clear the Air: Creating Eco-Friendly, Healthy Learning Environments
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Accreditation Standard 5: Health
Children depend on adults to make healthy choices for them and to teach them to make healthy choices for themselves. Although some degree of risk-taking is desirable for learning, a quality program prevents hazardous practices and environments. This article highlights environmental hazards you may not even know exist in your program and offers doable ways to reduce them.
Did you know that the air in your preschool setting can be two to three times more polluted than the air outside? Harmful chemicals emitted from consumer products like air fresheners (plug-ins, potpourri, bathroom sprays, essential oil diffusers) and fragranced art supplies (scented markers), as well as scents emanating from stickers and plastic dolls, can pollute indoor air, putting children's and staff's health at risk.
Read on to gather realistic, cost-effective strategies for reducing environmental hazards in your early learning facility and improving children's health.
Why focus on environmental health?
Environmental hazards children encounter daily—at home and in early learning settings—can negatively impact their health. Harmful environmental exposures in early childhood can disrupt normal growth and development, causing damage that may last throughout a child’s life.
Environmental hazards like lead and pesticides are connected to rising rates of childhood chronic diseases. Approximately one in six children is diagnosed with a developmental disorder—and research shows that environmental factors may play a role in 25 percent of cases of developmental disabilities.
For example, let’s look at lead. Children are at risk from lead exposure in paint and water. Exposure that may cause little or no harm to an adult can cause lifelong harm to children (including reducing ability to succeed in school). For children, there is no safe level of lead exposure.
Scientists are finding that lead is not the only environmental hazard that can do greater harm to children than to adults. For example, studies have found that exposure early in life to common pesticides is linked to lower IQ scores. Although more research needs to be done, there is a growing body of evidence about worrisome health effects resulting from exposure to these and other chemicals, such as in fragrances and flame retardants, and to compounds in plastics.
Scientists are also identifying more and more substances in products we use every day that have the ability to suppress or mimic hormones. Household products like fragranced cleaning and personal care products and plastics found in toys and food packaging can all contain hormone-disrupting chemicals. These chemicals, often called endocrine disruptors, can interfere with the ability to learn and, later in life, with fertility.
Children are not only more likely to be harmed by exposure to these substances; they are also more likely to be exposed to them. Because of crawling and hand-to-mouth behavior, children regularly ingest whatever is on the floor, including dust, dirt, and residual chemicals (for example, small amounts of cleaning products that have been sprayed in a child care facility, such as glass cleaner used on the windows).
Preventing children’s exposure to environmental hazards commonly found in early learning environments can help assure that all children have the opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed.
In Washington, DC, the Child Development Center at the National Archives and Record’s Administration provides programs and services for children with special needs. It also holds the Eco-Healthy Child Care endorsement and NAEYC accreditation. This center does a great job of incorporating environmental health best practices for children who have unique needs or vulnerabilities. Here are some of the easy and effective steps the center has taken:
- Avoiding all aerosol spray products. Aerosol sprays—such as carpet cleaners, furniture polish, hair spray, cooking spray, and air fresheners—spew invisible droplets of chemicals into the air. The droplets are inhaled by children and can trigger asthma and allergy symptoms.
- Using cold water for drinking and making baby formula. Cold water is less likely to leach lead from pipes.
- Reducing lead-contaminated dirt by placing rough mats at the center’s main entrance and not allowing shoes to be worn in the infant rooms.
- Contracting with a licensed pest management company to deal with pests in the least toxic and most environmentally sensitive ways, and to use chemicals only when children are not present.
How can providers start creating healthier child care facilities?
In 2017, NAEYC incorporated into its national accreditation standards low-cost steps for eliminating environmental hazards in early learning programs. These practical steps come from Eco-Healthy Child Care® (EHCC), a science-based, award-winning national program managed by the Children’s Environmental Health Network.
For more than 10 years, the EHCC program has been working with early education professionals to remove environmental hazards from early learning environments. The program also supports and educates families and other caregivers so they too are appropriately informed about the importance of protecting children’s environmental health.
The EHCC program offers a two-year endorsement to early education facilities that qualify as “Eco-Healthy” by complying with 24 of 30 simple, free, or low-cost environmental health best practices. The practices are summarized on a checklist that covers 11 areas, including pesticides and pest prevention; air quality; household chemicals; lead; radon; art supplies; and plastics and plastic toys, among other key environmental hazards. (To see the full checklist, visit https://bit.ly/2xpVOkl. And to learn more about these practices, read the 16 fact sheets on environmental health available at https://bit.ly/2Bh0Ceq. Both the checklist and the fact sheets are available in English and Spanish.)
Endorsed facilities receive a certificate and poster announcing their two-year endorsement. They are also featured online, allowing families to search for Eco-Healthy-endorsed early education and care providers (see https://bit.ly/2YqwfeC).
The EHCC program has a long-standing partnership with NAEYC. The program supported NAEYC in updating its national accreditation standards to more than double the number of environmental health practices recommended to early learning programs, aligning with the best practices outlined in the checklist. The standards were released in 2017 as emerging standards, and they are now fully a part of the accreditation program. The EHCC program continues to partner with NAEYC to share information about how to protect children by implementing the environmental health standards.
Forty-two percent of young children spend at least 35 hours a week in some form of early education and care. Creating healthy early learning environments is key to protecting the well-being of our nation’s children.
Selected Accreditation Assessment Items Related to Environmental Health
5C.2 When strong odors occur in the air, they are controlled using ventilation (not air-freshening sprays).
5C.4 Scented or unscented candles and air fresheners are not used anywhere in the facility.
5C.6 Show or describe how your program selects and uses fragrance-free and least-toxic cleaning products for use in your program facility.
9D.4 Show that you use non-toxic pest management techniques inside and outside the facility whenever possible, including an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system to eliminate or reduce harmful chemical exposures.
10D.2 Show two examples of written health and safety procedures meant to reduce staff exposure to environmental hazards.
Photograph: © Getty Images
Kathy Attar, MPH, is the engagement manager for Eco-Healthy Child Care®, a program of the Children's Environmental Health Network.
Hester Paul, MS, is the national director of Eco-Healthy Child Care®, a program of the Children's Environmental Health Network, in Washington, DC.