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Toxic Chemicals at School? 8 Important Questions to Ask

Health + Wellness
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By Nicole Ferox

When my daughter was in preschool, she told me that instead of washing hands before lunch, the children used hand sanitizer. The thinking behind this was probably that hand sanitizer kills bacteria and viruses and therefore — presto! — problem solved. Hands are clean, and it's so much quicker.


But hand sanitizer isn't designed to remove the chemicals, heavy metals and toxic dust that stick to kids' hands. Only soap and water can do that. So instead of washing away those toxic contaminants, my daughter was probably eating them with her snack.

There are many ways schools can reduce children's cumulative exposure to chemicals and contaminants, and many are relatively simple. Here are eight important questions to ask:

1. Do the kids wash their hands before they eat?

Requiring hand washing with soap and water, especially after kids have been outside and before they eat, is arguably the easiest change schools can make to reduce kids' exposure to chemical pollutants from dust and other sources.

2. What cleaning products does the school use?

We recommend schools use cleaning products that are third-party green certified, which means their ingredients are safer for everyone, especially children, or products with an A, or green, rating in our Guide to Healthy Cleaning. For institutional cleaning supplies, schools should choose Green Seal, EcoLogo or EPA's Safer Choice-certified products only.

3. Has the school had its drinking water tested for lead?

There's no safe level of lead exposure, but most states don't require schools and child care centers to test their drinking water for lead. If the water hasn't been tested at your kids' school, urge administrators to contact the local health department to start the process. Since lead levels in a single building can vary, all faucets and drinking fountains should be tested. In California, one in five schools has found at least one faucet on their campus with water containing lead.

4. What landscaping chemicals are used?

Chances are good your school uses chemical fertilizers, weedkillers and other pesticides for playground and grounds maintenance. Many of them, especially pesticides, are toxic and linked to childhood cancer and autism. Talk to your school about safer landscaping alternatives, with EWG's guide and collection of resources as a starting point.

5. Does the school serve organic foods?

A good first step is to focus on foods where switching from conventional to organic will make the biggest impact: milk and meat, fruits, and veggies with the most pesticides; foods grown with particularly toxic pesticides; and snacks with the worst food additives.

Questions to ask your kid’s child care center or preschool:

6. Are the nap mats made without flame retardants?

A study conducted by the Washington state-based nonprofit Toxic-Free Future found that when child care providers replaced nap mats with chemical-free versions, the levels of flame retardants polluting children's bodies decreased by 40 to 90 percent. It's a safe guess that mats made in 2014 and earlier were treated with chemical flame retardants; 2015 or newer mats are more likely to be untreated and are required to bear a label stating whether they have added flame retardants.

7. What kind of laundry detergent does the facility use? 

To avoid fragrances, allergens and other ingredients that can irritate children's skin, we recommend child care providers choose detergent with a green A rating in our Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

8. What kind of sunscreen do care providers use?

Sunscreen is especially important for kids, who are more susceptible to the ill effects of the sun. We recommend care providers avoid chemical sunscreens and instead choose a broad spectrum mineral sunscreen with active ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Use EWG's Guide to Sunscreens to find products that offer adequate protection from both UVA and UVB rays without the addition of hazardous chemicals.

Want to know everything you can about building a healthy indoor environment at school? Explore EWG's extensive buying guides for building products, paints, furniture, mattress, carpets and other products in the Healthy Living Home Guide.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.