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Toxic Chemicals at School? 8 Important Questions to Ask

Health + Wellness
lisegagne / E+ / Getty Images

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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