Over the last thirty years the use of plastics around our homes has increased dramatically. Plastics are often cheaper and more durable than natural materials but they are also manufactured using toxic chemicals (including known carcinogens) which can be released from the plastic long after it enters our home. These chemicals can be absorbed by contact with the plastic and/or by simply breathing the chemicals released from the plastic. While the long-term effects of exposure to the chemicals emitted from plastics is unclear, short-term effects can include respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, listlessness and generally feeling unwell.
Our children spend most of their lives at home eating, playing and sleeping. This article looks at how to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals from plastics in the home.
Plastics are found extensively in the everyday contents of our homes. They are now commonly found in paint, carpet, furniture, floor polishes, curtains, upholstery and bedding. They are also used extensively in the soft furnishings of the kitchen, bathroom and amongst our children’s toys.
The good news is that not all plastics are as toxic as others. Some plastics are quite “inert” (do not emit dangerous chemicals) such as “polyethylene” which is used to make plastic food wrappings and food containers. Polyester, used in clothing, is also considered very safe. However, the extensive use of other plastics such as Polyvinylchloride (PVC) and Polyurethane is starting to cause much concern. The manufacture of PVC uses a class of chemicals suspected of causing cancer, kidney damage and disruption of the body’s hormone system. In children, exposure to PVC can increase the risk of developing asthma and allergies, and may be responsible for the large rise in asthma observed in developed countries over the last 30 years. Exposure to polyurethane can cause respiratory problems and chemically induced asthma. Polyurethane also contains chemicals which may cause damage to the nervous system and are probably carcinogens. The fumes from Polyurethane when it is burnt are also extremely toxic. Our families may be in very close contact with these kinds of plastics on a day-to-day basis, and exposure can occur through contact or, perhaps more insidiously, by simply breathing the chemicals emitted from the plastic.
Do you know that “new car smell”? That smell is caused by chemicals “outgasing” from the plastics used in the interior finishing of the car (including the foam in the seats). The smell can last for up to a year or more after manufacture.
Let’s look at some simple ways to minimise our children’s exposure to toxic chemicals from plastics.
For many people part of the fun of having a new baby is preparing the nursery to welcome the new baby to their new home. This often involves a “fresh” coat of paint, new curtains, some nice new furniture (e.g. cot, change table, toy box) and perhaps even some new carpet. All of these items are likely to release toxic chemicals for up to one year after they are manufactured. Try not to renovate the nursery in this fashion or, if necessary, do the renovations well in advance of baby’s arrival. The nursery needs to be clean – free of dust, mould and mildew. Walls can often be freshened up with a good scrub down, curtains washed and the carpet steam-cleaned.
Try to buy second-hand furniture (but always check the safety requirements for items such as cots) and resist the temptation to renovate old furniture with a new coat of polyurethane-based finish. If the nursery must be painted try to have it done early in the pregnancy (and not by the pregnant mother!) or ensure the baby sleeps elsewhere for the first few months while the paint outgases. New furniture and mattresses should be bought as early as possible and left in a spare room or the garage to outgas for as long as possible before use.
A new baby spends a significant amount of time asleep in very close contact with their bedding. Unfortunately new mattresses are amongst the worst culprits for emitting toxic fumes. If buying a new mattress, allow it to “air” for as long as possible before use. Some of the new bassinet mattresses are specifically made from the inert polyethylene plastic foams. Or choose a mattress made from 100% cotton or chemical-free wool. If in doubt, use your nose and choose the mattress that smells the least. Waterproof cot and basinet mattress covers are of a great concern as most available in Australia use PVC as the waterproof layer. In reality, small children rarely need such waterproof mattress protection. A 100% cotton mattress protector is ample to protect the mattress from any accidents which should be attended to immediately (for the good of the baby – not the mattress!). A good cloth nappy, properly boosted for your child, will ensure no nappy leaks overnight or during naps.
While other clothing will come and go, a baby will be in nappies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for at least the first 2 1/2 years of their lives (and often longer). A raft of plastics and chemicals are used in the manufacture of disposable nappies. Recently concerns have been raised about the effect on the respiratory systems of babies of these chemicals. One doesn’t like to think about the long term effects of having these chemicals in continuous contact with a child’s skin. Cotton nappies are not without concern, as a lot of pesticides and herbicides are used in the production of regular (non-organic) cotton. Luckily, these chemicals wash almost completely out of the fabric in the first few washes. So always wash your baby’s nappies (and clothing) a few times before use to remove residue chemicals. Until recently, PVC plastic pilchers were the only widely available form of waterproof cover for cloth nappies. As we have seen, PVC is considered a very dangerous plastic. Luckily now a whole range of safer materials for waterproof covers are available in Australia including polyester “polar fleece” and polyurethane laminated polyester (the amount of polyurethane used in these covers is so small it becomes inert almost immediately). But for a really natural cover you can’t go past good old-fashioned wool. Try not to have your baby continuously in disposable nappies, and when using cloth nappies avoid PVC pilchers.
Children are always in close contact with their toys! The European Union has recently banned the use of PVC in children’s toys due to health concerns. Avoid buying toys made from PVC. Common culprits are soothers and teething rings, bath and beach toys, inflatable toys and PVC balls. Many toys and teething toys are now specifically labelled “No PVC”.
It is impractical these days to not have plastics in our homes. However, we should be aware of the dangers of some plastics and make a conscious effort to minimise the use of these plastics. Where no alternatives are available, leaving the plastic to outgas for a reasonable time before use and ensuring adequate ventilation of the home will minimise the risk to our families.
“Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World: 101 Smart Solutions for Every Family”
by Phillip Landrigan, Herbert L. Needleman, Mary Landrigan. Rodale Press 2002.
Minimising your family’s risk
- Use your nose! If something smells “new” then there is some chemical causing that smell and it’s probably best if you and your children don’t breath too much of it.
- Ventilate the house – air the house whenever possible and for at least an hour each day with open windows.
- Buy second-hand furniture or allow new furniture to air in a spare room for as long as possible before use.
- Buy cotton or wool bedding or allow new mattresses to air for as long as possible before use.
- Avoid purchasing toys, clothing and bedding containing PVC.
- Allow new curtains to hang elsewhere for as long as possible before hanging them in your children’s room.
- When painting, installing new carpet or having wooden floors sanded and polished stay elsewhere for as long as possible and ventilate the house as much as possible for at least a few months after you return to the house.
- Seek out new safer products – some paints, carpets etc. now use non-toxic plastics in their manufacture.