Chemical Exposure At Preschool: Safe And Simple Ways To Detoxify

Much thought is given to making our homes non-toxic, but how about daycares and pre-schools? Green Living expert Aida Garcia-Toledo shares her tips on how to advocate for change

diverse kids sitting at desks in preschool

What makes for a perfect preschool? Perhaps it is the way the adults talk to the children, the amount of playtime your child gets, the way conflict is handled, or the school’s philosophy – is it play based? Montessori? Waldorf or Reggio focused? What constitutes a perfect preschool will be different for everyone. On the whole, most parents would agree that the perfect preschool should allow children to feel safe and nurtured so that they can develop to their fullest potential socially, emotionally and cognitively during these early formative years.

There is however one important factor of the preschool experience that many parents tend to overlook that has the potential to affect your child’s development: the school’s environmental and chemical management and usage policies.    

The fact is, preschool-aged children are especially vulnerable to harmful chemicals. They love to put things in their mouths, spend a lot of time on the floor and  don’t always wash their hands properly. Due to their small size, a child’s chemical exposure is greater than an adult’s, and their natural detoxifying abilities are not as developed. 

Chemical exposure at preschool

While you might take extra care at home to ensure your kids aren’t exposed to unnecessary chemicals – can you be positive that the same level of care is being given at their daycare or preschool? While school administrators are experts in your child’s social and emotional development, most of them would have no idea about the effect that harmful chemicals in everyday products could have on your child’s development. In fact, many people still believe that they need to rely on harsh chemicals to protect children, when in fact, they’re doing the opposite. 

How to make preschool non-toxic

Children spend a large portion of their early lives at school, so as parents we can and should ask about potential sources of chemical exposure in these environments. Most of the time, especially in smaller pre-schools, your questions and suggestions will be met with interest and enthusiasm because, ultimately, we all have the same goal of protecting our children.

So, as a parent, what should you ask about, and look for in a non-toxic pre-school? Here are the 4 most important things:

Check drinking water

Why this is important:

Contrary to what many people believe, water supplies in the United States can often contain toxic chemicals including: lead, PFCs, fluoride, antibiotics, bacteria and nitrates etc.

recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that drinking water at more than half of the child care centers tested in four states had lead levels that could harm children’s health. However, most school districts still aren’t checking to see if there’s lead in their water; four states require public schools to test but absolutely no private schools or daycare centers are required by law to do so.

What you can do: 

It is important to be informed about the quality of the water your child is drinking at home and at school.  

  • Ask your child’s school for a copy of the most recent drinking water tests
  • If no tests have been conducted, ask your public school Board of Education or private school head and his/her board or your state health agency to conduct testing at the tap
  • In the meantime, talk to your children and explain to them that it is important to take a water bottle with safe water from home to school

A non-toxic preschool will:

Test their water supply to determine what solution they need to provide safe drinking water for children. Some of the best healthier water solutions include: 

  • water fountain filters
  • whole school reverse osmosis filters
  • water delivery services


Check cleaning products

Why this is important: 

The biggest misconception many schools have is that they need to rely on harsh toxic chemicals to keep germs away. In fact, continual exposure to hundreds of cleaning products can and do have serious health effects, especially on children. According to the EPAcommon symptoms brought about by exposure to chemicals in cleaners include:

  • asthma
  • upper respiratory irritation
  • fatigue
  • nasal congestion
  • nausea
  • dizziness

The reality is that cleanliness can be achieved safely and effectively with certified green products. In fact, studies have found that cleaning a classroom with certified green products releases less than 1/6th of the total air pollution released by cleaning a classroom with conventional cleaners. Another benefit? Making a switch to safer cleaners may reduce asthma symptoms in some children.  

What you can do

Have a conversation with your head of school. Provide them research that shows how harmful chemicals in cleaning products can be and explain to them that even the EPA is in favor of schools transitioning to less toxic cleaning supplies.  

If your teacher relies on antimicrobial hand sanitizer in lieu of hand washing, consider providing your class with a safer, alcohol-based sanitizer to use daily. For more information and resources, see this Advocates guide to Green Cleaning in Schools. 

A non-toxic preschool will:

  • Clean with certified green products (Green Seal, Ecologo , EWG Certified are good options)
  • Encourage hand washing with plain soap instead of antimicrobial hand sanitizer overuse
  • Update and maintain equipment – especially HEPA vacuums and air conditioning filters
  • Disinfect only in target areas when needed. Try peroxide-based disinfectants first
  • Avoid aerosols and fragrances – ‘clean’ doesn’t have to smell like pine or lemon fresh. Avoid plug-in or spray air fresheners
  • Regularly open windows to allow fresh air to circulate and let the toxins out

Pesticide use on school grounds

Why this is important:

Pests such as rats, cockroaches, ants and lice can be a problem at schools. As a result, green areas often get treated with insecticides and pesticides. No school will talk about what methods they use to deal with these problems unless you ask them. 

Exposures to pesticides can produce coughs, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and eye irritation.  Additionally, there is plenty of evidence that shows that long-term pesticide exposure in adults (keep in mind children are more vulnerable) is associated with chronic health effects such as cancer, neurologic problems and reproductive problems.

What you can do

  1. Encourage Integrative Pest Management (IPM) which is a prevention, monitoring, and control plan that offers the opportunity to eliminate or drastically reduce pesticides in schools, and to minimize the exposure to any products which are used
  2. If the problem is more serious and natural pest management is not working, find out what your school is using and encourage any treatment to be placed on a Friday afternoon (to allow at least a couple of days before the children are back playing)
  3. Encourage your school to inform families about when any spraying will take place and make sure teachers enforce hand washing after outdoor time
  4. Advocate for a pesticide-free school lawn

A non-toxic preschool will: 

Have a pesticide-free lawn for kids to play on and have a clearly evident Integrative Pest Management System in place which might include: 

  • Daily cleaning food and food areas
  • Disposing food and food wrappers in sealed garbage containers
  • Repairing leaky pipes and faucets
  • Filling up cracks and crevices
  • Eliminating clutter 

Healthy snacks and lunch

Why this is important:

Many preschools provide either snacks or lunch (or both). While this can be a big help to parents, the food many schools serve can potentially be another source of harmful chemical exposure to your young child.

Pesticides, artificial colors, genetically modified foods, high fructose corn syrup and MSG are found in many popular foods served at school. Some of these chemicals have been linked to hyperactivity, asthma, allergies, cancer and other health issues that are increasing at an alarming rate in our children. 

Working with the school administration to reduce the use of pesticides and food dyes can go a long way to protecting the health of your children.

What you can do:

  1. Form a parent led snack/ food committee that can work with the school to reduce the use of pesticides and food dyes in the foods being served daily 
  2. Make a list of healthier snack foods and, when possible, include plenty of organic fresh produce and rely less on processed foods
  3. Take a look at where the food is being served.  If single use containers must be used (because there is no one or no place to wash reusable containers) avoid polystyrene and plastic and instead choose compostable materials
  4. If space and weather permit, suggest a school edible garden. Funding might have to come from fundraising, and maintenance from parent volunteers, but edible gardens can be a wonderful learning tool for kids, as well as a potential resource for snack time. Also, when young kids plant and harvest the produce themselves, they’re more likely to eat it.

A non-toxic preschool will:

Offer organic snacks and meals, serve these on compostable or reusable trays/ plates and perhaps have a school garden incorporated into the curriculum. 

Continue exploring

Aida Garcia-Toledo shares six easy tips to help you detox your home.