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The Hidden Dangers of Schools and Childcare Centres describes where there may be hidden dangers to child health in the places where we think children are safe says toxics consultant, Jo Immig. Jo Immig

The land they stand on, the materials they are built of and the substances used in their management may all be hidden health dangers in schools and childcare centres.

How safe the land?

Some schools and childcare centres may have been unknowingly built on contaminated land.

Sites where there have previously been polluting industries such as gas works, petrol stations or industrial factories may not have been adequately decontaminated and may still present risks to children.

Locations near main roads increase the risks of exposure to petrol by-products such as lead (lead fuel has now been phased out in Australia however lead may still be found in soils), benzene and particulates.

Building materials

Many building and interior fit-out materials emit toxic vapours called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) through the process of out-gassing.

Examples include: insulating materials, plastics, sealants, paints and finishes, particleboards, carpet, vinyl, foam furnishings and treated timbers.

VOCs emitted from building materials can significantly increase the levels of indoor air pollution which children are exposed to.

Treated timbers such as CCA are also a source of chemicals now considered unsafe for children.

Maintenance and renovations

Maintenance and renovations can introduce hazardous and volatile chemicals into indoor air from sources such as:

  • paints and varnishesstains
  • treated timbers
  • glues and sealants
  • particleboard
  • carpets.

Lead contamination can be introduced from old painted surfaces and contaminated dusts in roof cavities.

Pest management

Pest management is important but a lack of understanding about pesticides has led to the excessive use of highly hazardous and residual chemicals in schools and childcare centres.

Not only are the active ingredients in many pesticide formulations of concern to children’s health, other so-called inert ingredients in the formulations can also be harmful.

Cleaning products

Cleaning products and procedures are a source of potentially hazardous chemicals including antimicrobials, solvents, fragrance, surfactants etc.

Cleaned surfaces may retain hazardous residues and volatile ingredients which  are released into the air, contributing to indoor air pollution.   

Art and stationary materials

Materials are used to create wonderful works of art but s

Glues, paints, felt tip pens, stains, dyes, varnishes, photographic chemicals, glazes, plastics and resins are some examples of materials which need to be examined for their risks.

Correction fluids are very hazardous to children.

The science classroom

Because schools use a large number of chemicals in science classes there has been a lot of attention in recent times to remove many older, highly dangerous chemicals.

Not all schools have been thoroughly audited. Their chemical supplies may still contain banned chemicals.

A list of banned chemicals can be obtained from the relevant regulatory authority in your state or territory.

Personal care products

An increasing number of children have sensitivities to the synthetic fragrances and solvents commonly found in a range of personal care products including soaps, shampoos, perfumes, deodorants, hair spray, clothes detergent etc.

Teachers and carers, and where possible classmates, need to consider that overly fragrant products may pose difficulties for some children.

Consideration must also be given to the use of some sunscreens and insect repellants as they may contain hazardous chemicals.

Food and water

An overlooked area of children’s chemical exposure is the food and water they take in.

A lot of food has been grown using pesticides, antibiotics and fertilisers and residues can eaten over a long time may affect child health.

Processed foods may contain artificial sweetners, preservatives and colours, some of which have been shown to dramatically affect the health and well being of children.

There is also genetically engineered foods to consider now.


Toxic Playground: A guide to reducing the chemical load in schools and childcare centres.
Jo Immg, Total Environment Centre (see book order page)

Safer Solutions: Integrated Pest Management for Schools and Childcare Centres.
Jo immg, Total Environment Centre (see book order page)

Working Together to Clear the Air: How the chemical cocktail inside our homes is poisoning our children.
Jo Immig, National Toxics Network & Total Environment Centre.

Food Intolerance Network
Sue Dengate’s Food Intolerance Network:
Links to her four books are on the website: Fed Up, Fed Up with Asthma, The Failsafe Cookbook, Fed Up with ADHD.

Centre For Children’s Health and the Environment    
The mission of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment (CCHE) of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine is to protect children against environmental threats to health.

The Centre is leading the effort to protect children against environmental toxins and their research is examining the health hazards of pesticides, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals and air pollutants. The Centre is developing strategies to prevent learning disabilities, asthma, obesity and cancer.

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