As parents, we do our best to keep our kids safe at all costs. We make sure they’re bundled up in hats and gloves during the winter; we instruct them to look both ways before crossing the street; and we teach them the dangers of talking to strangers. At home, we childproof, covering electrical outlets and installing gates in front of staircases to keep wobbly toddlers from tumbling down. And, perhaps most importantly, we lock up hazardous chemicals and other objects that could poison our little loves and land them in the emergency room … or worse!
Unfortunately, though, in efforts to keep our kids safe from obvious dangers, we often miss the more subtle culprits that could be just as harmful. Here we explore four of the most surprising poison sources that are likely found in your home right now.
1. Household dust
As it turns out, skipping those weekly dusting sessions can cause more than an unappealing layer of film on furniture and electronics. “Several studies have found house dust to be a primary exposure route for lead poisoning,” says Trina Masepohl, an interior designer specializing in green interiors and the author of The Green Nursery: How to Design a Healthy, Safe Space for Your New Baby, “as well as exposure to harmful flame retardants, PFCs (stain- and water-resistant chemicals like Teflon and Stainmaster) and phthalates (plasticizers used in soft, flexible plastic products).” The problem, says Masepohl, is that most of those contaminants can be found in household dust, and because of children’s “constant hand-to-mouth behavior,” many of those substances can be ingested. Additionally, even as harmful chemicals like PFCs are phased out of the manufacturing process, they can still be found in older carpeting and upholstery, where they mix with dust.
Masepohl suggests careful, regular cleanings, including vacuuming with a HEPA-filtered vacuum and damp-dusting hard, dust-prone surfaces. For added protection, have children wash their hands before eating to avoid ingesting any dust they may have come in contact with.
2. Rubber duckies, bottles and other plastics
BPA, or Bisphenol A, is a carbon-based synthetic compound that has been used in the manufacturing of plastics since the 1950s. While the compound produces products that are tough and durable, its effect on people is not so desirable. Studies have shown that exposure to the chemical can cause neurological and physical disruptions. And in 2010, the FDA determined that BPA was especially harmful to the still-developing bodies of infants and children.
While many companies have halted the use of the compound (and so advertise on packaging that their products are BPA-free), parents still need to be careful to avoid pre-existing sources. Older toys should be replaced, as well as any plastic bottles or feeding materials that may have been used with an older child. Additionally, plastic food storage containers should be avoided as well, particularly when microwaving, as heat tends to exacerbate the rate at which the chemical is leeched from plastic.
3. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs)
With pressure to “go green” on the continued rise, even the government has joined efforts to encourage Americans to reduce their carbon footprints and become more energy-efficient. In 2007, President Bush signed into law the Energy Independence Security Act, which, among other things, initiated a phase-out of traditional incandescent bulbs. The bill requires greater efficiency for light bulbs and, as of January 1, 2014, bans the manufacturing and importing of most of the older model bulbs. In their place? Compact fluorescent light bulbs (or CFLs), which are white and spiral-shaped and made with the toxic chemical mercury.
“If one breaks, your house must be evacuated for 20 minutes, and then you practically need a hazmat team to clean up,” says Birgitta Lauren, president of Expecting Fitness and an expert in prenatal and infant nutrition. “Imagine dropping one on the floor, mercury dust goes everywhere and your baby is crawling by, inhaling the brain-damaging poison.”
The EPA has specific clean-up guidelines should a CFL bulb break in your home, but there are also other alternatives. Companies like Philips and GE have produced energy-efficient bulbs that aren’t so hazardous to the environment or your child’s health.
4. Clothing and bedding
It would seem that regarding the fabrics that come closest to our skin, companies would be most careful to avoid using chemicals that can wreak havoc on our health. Not so.
“Lots of potentially harmful chemicals go into textile manufacturing,” explains Masepohl. “Formaldehyde (classified by the EPA as a known human carcinogen) can be used to provide wrinkle-free and so-called ‘easy care’ finishes to products like sheets and dress shirts. And PFCs are applied to fabrics to make them stain- and water-resistant, but are known endocrine disruptors and suspected carcinogens.”
Shockingly, even clothing designed for children and babies doesn’t escape the toxic assault. A Greenpeace report published in January showed that harmful chemicals were found in kids’ clothes produced by major brands including Disney, Gap and Nike. To avoid the toxins, Masepohl recommends purchasing only bedding and clothing certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Oeko-Tex, an association that advocated for sustainable textile production. “These certifications limit the number and type of hazardous chemicals that can be used throughout the textile manufacturing process,” explains Masepohl. “Clothing can be tougher to find, but certified bedding is readily available.”
To learn more about how to poison-proof your home, check out the EPA’s “One Room at a Time” checklist.