Green Guidance

Green Guidance

Attending to Children's Health at Home and School

No sooner have the kids returned to school, it seems, than it's back to sniffles and sneezes. As flu season starts, it's important to guard against pollutants that can trigger or worsen illnesses, from asthma and allergies to learning and attention problems.

School environments play a key role in affecting children's health and learning ability. Evidence from around the world shows that improving nutritional and health conditions in schools can boost academic performance; influence rates of enrollment, retention, and absenteeism; and increase the likelihood that children start school at the appropriate age.

Because their brains, nervous systems, and hormonal systems are developing rapidly, children are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins than adults are. In the United States, classrooms in half of all 115,000 schools suffer from poor indoor environments. And 14 million U.S. students attend schools that need major repair or replacement. Parents worldwide can meet with school administrators to demand that schools use the least-toxic products possible for renovating, decorating, and maintenance.

Healthy nutrition is also important. A study in Nepal found that children of normal nutritional status were five times as likely to attend school as nutritionally stunted children. Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest that school-based nutrition interventions can also improve academic performance.

Some tips on protecting our children's health:

1. Encourage handwashing and proper hygiene. In Canada, after the government initiated a pilot handwashing program for first-grade children, participants made 25 fewer visits to the doctor, used 86 percent fewer medications, and were absent 22 percent less than the previous year. Avoid antibacterial soaps, which the WHO says are unnecessary.

2. Use plant-based "green" cleaning products. Avoid items that contain hormone-disrupting, asthma-provoking phthalates (found in synthetic fragrances) or that release caustic, eye-­watering fumes from chlorine bleach and ammonia.

3. Choose paints, finishes, sealants, plywood, particleboard, and even magic markers that are free of petroleum-based volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs, such as benzene and formaldehyde, are known neurotoxins and carcinogens. Look for "low-VOC" or "no-VOC" labels and seek pressed-wood products certified as nontoxic and/or sustainably harvested.

4. Avoid wall-to-wall carpets and heavy draperies, which collect VOCs and allergy and asthma triggers such as dust mites. Use natural-fiber, washable area rugs and underpads made from wool felt, camel-hair, or natural latex.

5. Phase out furniture filled with polyurethane foam. These items are commonly treated with fire-retardants made from polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which can harm nervous systems. Seal or dispose of foam furniture that has torn upholstery and choose mattresses and seating padded with natural latex, cotton, wool, or foam untreated with PDBEs.

6. Use integrated pest management. Natural methods of pest control, such as denying bugs food, water, shelter, and entry, are far healthier than known neurotoxins like organo­phosphate or pyrethrin pesticides. Pesticide spraying near schools has made children acutely ill, causing vomiting, wheezing, and conjunctivitis.

7. Test for lead in old flaking paint and for arsenic in pressure-treated wood playground equipment. A greenish tinge indicates arsenic; wood can be coated with a low-VOC sealant. Carbon-based filters remove lead from water.

8. Test for mold if there's been a flood or chronic leaking. The "sniff" test-that musty smell-should put you on alert.

9. Keep rooms well-ventilated and airy to discourage molds. Also, tests show improved academic performance in schools with plentiful daylight and fresh air.

10. Promote a healthy lunchbox, kitchen, and cafeteria. Serve fresh (preferably organic) produce and whole foods free of added sugars and fats. To hold beverages and foods, use metal containers or safer, more recyclable plastics. (Look for plastics numbered 2, 4, and 5 rather than 1, 3, 6, and 7, which can leach toxic chemicals if heated or scratched.) Limit your kids to only 3 ounces (85 grams) of tuna every two weeks to avoid mercury build-up in their bodies.

For more information on keeping your children healthy and safe, see


Mindy Pennybacker is editor of The Green Guide, published by The Green Guide Institute, which provides the research for this department.