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By Lisa Frack with Rebecca Sutton, PhD, Environmental Working Group

Truth is, when my husband and I chose a childcare facility for our kids (way back in 2003), the question of environmental health didn't even cross our minds.

Why not?

Because what mattered more, at the time, was its affordability, its proximity to my office so I could breastfeed over lunch and get there quickly in an emergency, and, of course, the quality of care. (Plus, I didn't work at EWG back then!).

But these days I want a daytime environment for my kids that's green and healthy - not bad for them. And while we can't all up and switch childcare centers in search of (literally) greener pastures, we can work with our current caregivers to "green" the spaces where our kids spend time. And when it's time to pick a new childcare center, we can add environmental health to our list of important criteria.

It's not nearly as hard as it is important. Childcare centers can start with these manageable steps - with an emphasis on protecting infants, who are the most vulnerable:
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1: Create a healthy space

  • Seal or remove arsenic-treated wood decks & play structures. Those built before 2003 likely contain arsenic. Don't allow children to eat at older picnic tables (or cover them with a cloth). Have kids wash hands after playing near these surfaces, or avoid them altogether.
  • Watch for lead paint. Older paint may contain lead. Kids face health risks from loose chips and lead in dust. If your building was built before 1978, use a certified lead-safe contractor for any repairs. Learn more from the EPA.
  • Don't use bug spray or weed killer inside or out. Safer alternatives are readily available.
  • Clean greener & disinfect when kids aren't around. Choose certified green cleaning supplies, dust & vacuum often (with a HEPA filter), use fragrance-free laundry detergent and skip air fresheners & dryer sheets. Disinfectants can be toxic. Where necessary, disinfect with safer peroxide-based products or bleach. Always follow product directions. Learn more in EWG's school cleaners tests & report.
  • Remove or repair furniture and mattresses with exposed foam. Before 2005, most foam was treated with toxic fire retardants.
  • Take care with compact fluorescent light bulbs. Don't put them in lamps that can fall, releasing mercury. If a bulb breaks, clear the room, air it out, put on gloves, safety glasses & a dust mask, seal the waste, wash up. Replace mercury thermometers & thermostats with mercury-free options.

2: Eating & drinking

  • Offer healthy snacks. Choose fruits & veggies from EWG's Clean 15 list or buy organic - and always wash them. Don't microwave food in plastic. Microwave popcorn bags contain toxic chemicals - try air-popping instead. Choose organic dairy and meat when possible; buy rBGH/hormone-free milk. Use BPA-free dishware. Learn how to pick safer plastics here.
  • Wash little hands before eating - with plain soap & water. Skip anti-bacterial soaps - they're no better than plain soap and contain toxic triclosan. If you use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, choose fragrance-free. Learn more about safer hand washing here.
  • Drink safer water. Filter tap water as needed to remove contaminants. Check EWG's Tap Water Database to learn your local water quality and find an effective filter. Test water fountains for lead.

3: Playtime!

  • Avoid soft plastic toys & metal jewelry. Many plastic softeners are toxic. Choose items labeled PVC- and phthalate-free. Avoid metal trinkets and play jewelry, which can contain heavy metals. Skip face paint unless you know it's free of lead and other contaminants. Natural, unpainted wood toys are a good choice.
  • Use safer art supplies. Don't use rubber cement, permanent or dry-erase markers or materials meant for adults. Stick with paper/cardboard, yarn, wood & homemade play dough. If you don't know what's in something, skip it.
  • Apply safer sunscreen. Use EWG's Sunscreen Guide to find ones with SPF 30+ and zinc or titanium. Skip oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate, sprays, added bug repellent. Wear hats & avoid mid-day sun.
  • Adjust outdoor play based on local air quality using On high pollution days, limit high-energy outdoor play for kids, especially those with asthma.

Most important for infants:
Infants' teeny, developing bodies make them especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals. These 4 tips top our list for their environmental health:

Download EWG's Guide to Healthy Child Care - then share it with your friends and child care providers!

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