From paint to toys to flooring, parents can take a few simple steps to reduce kids' exposure to harmful chemicals.
Protect children from potential toxins at home
Beverly Jatwani wants the same type of environment for her three children as she does for herself: healthy and manageable.
After a career with Emirates Airline, Jatwani, originally from India, has partnered with Lucy Bruce, an educator and mother of two from the UK, to open Home Grown Children's Eco Nursery in Dubai - the first of its kind in the UAE - this autumn. Many of the measures Jatwani and Bruce are taking to create their non-toxic nursery environment can be easily imitated by parents who are concerned about keeping their little ones safe at home.
To prevent off-gassing, the walls will be covered in paint free of or low in volatile organic compounds, and the floors will be made from sustainable and sturdy bamboo. Jatwani and Bruce are planning for extra ventilation - using open windows when weather permits - to boost the indoor air quality. Every effort will be made to create an environment as free of toxins as possible, from certified eco-friendly furniture and outdoor play equipment set on protective flooring made from recycled tyres, right down to crayons made of soy.
Indoor air has two to five times the pollutants of outdoor air, meaning that chemical vapours can be trapped inside and lead to respiratory problems in children, according to Healthy Child, Healthy World, a US-based non-profit devoted to helping parents protect their children from chemicals.
In the organisation's guide Healthy Child, Healthy World: Creating a greener, cleaner, safer home, Devra Davis, an American epidemiologist and author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer, says people cannot assume the products they use every day are safe simply because they have been approved for sale.
"People often ask me if I think the facts I report are just too alarming," she says. "I don't. We all have natural repair processes that keep us healthy much of the time. Getting informed about hazards we can avoid is critical to our health and that of our children and grandchildren."
Marlene Sirota is an environmental health expert who moved to the UAE from the US a year ago to help lobby on the issue. Back in the US, Sirota worked with a number of research institutes as well as the Environmental Working Group. She focused a portion of her efforts on the negative effect of Bisphenol A, or BPA, an endocrine disrupter found in plastic, including baby bottles, on the male reproductive system.
Sirota believes parents in the UAE need to be particularly vigilant about what they bring into their homes. "The problem is there are no safeguards," she says. "There are no regulations in place."
Even much older and more established western countries struggle to keep up with finding, identifying and regulating all the toxins in our environment. Canada, for example, just this year banned phthalates in children's toys. This group of industrial chemicals can be added to soften plastic and vinyl, and turns up in a variety of items, including toys, action figures and even soothers. Studies have shown that phthalates, which are regulated as air and water pollutants by the US Environmental Protection Agency, are endocrine disrupters that can have a negative effect on the male reproductive system. The US took similar action to ban phthalates two years ago; the EU more than a decade ago.
Children are more vulnerable than adults to off-gassing and chemicals in their environment because they are developing. Homes in the UAE often do not have proper ventilation, meaning harmful chemicals can continue to circulate, says Sirota.
"Chemicals, when they interact, can be very dangerous for children, yet have zero effect on adults," she says. "Pound for pound, children breathe more than we do, they eat more than we do, so it affects them more than us."
Although parents cannot create a perfect environment for their children, there are some obvious and fairly easy steps to removing some of the most immediate risks.
Having no-VOC paint on the walls and non-toxic flooring is an important first step, she says. Regular paint and flooring can off-gas chemicals. And a crawling child will be much closer to nasty compounds that can be found in carpets, such as the known toxin formaldehyde, than adults.
Even flooring that is designated for children can be dangerous. Last year Belgium banned the sale of colourful children's interlocking foam mats, after a study found most contained formamide. This industrial chemical, which can leach or off-gas into the surrounding air, has been named as a possible carcinogen, reproductive toxin and eye and skin irritant.
In addition to eco-friendly pillows and mattresses - which can otherwise be made using polyurethane, polyester and pesticides - parents should make sure sheets, covers and pillow cases are made from a healthy material such as organic cotton. Many cheap varieties can contain perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which is a known toxin and carcinogen.
Additional steps include ridding homes of harsh cleaning chemicals, aerosols and artificial fragrances.
Sirota says many of these elements can be dangerous for children but more difficult to identify. "The challenge is that these are things parents don't think about here because they don't see it."
Back at the Home Grown Children's Eco Nursery, Jatwani and Bruce are not just offering their charges a safe environment in which to grow and play. Their idea was to create an environmentally healthy space that would be sustainably built and operated, all while setting an example their 120 young charges per year, ages 12 months to four years, can follow.
That means in each of the 16 classrooms, attended to by a teacher and teacher's assistant, most of the materials used to make arts and crafts are recycled, the food is locally sourced and organic where possible, and the toilets are low-flush. The environment and the importance of reusing and recycling will be built into the curriculum - Jatwani describes using bottle caps to help with counting as an example - and with the help of composting and an on-site vegetable patch, the aim is to have as close to zero rubbish as possible.
"If children are taught from a young age to respect the environment," she says, "that seed will be so deep in them that they will always respect the environment in the future.
Eco tip: Party green
Dubai's Peekaboo Creative Play Centre offers eco-birthday parties for children. The business was launched by the sisters Nour and Hiba Abdo, who between them have five children under the age of seven. Their events begin with online invitations, biodegradable balloons, non-toxic and hypoallergenic face paint, "green" arts and crafts - even organic popcorn to snack on. The centres, located at The Village Mall in Jumeirah, Mall of the Emirates and Ibn Battuta Mall, also feature recycling stations, and use energy efficient lighting and eco-friendly cleaning products. The company also puts on parties in private homes. For more information, visit www.peekaboo.ae
Eco buy: EcoZone Ecoballs
Eco-friendly cleaning products don't always have the best reputation in terms of performance, but take it from us: EcoZone's Eco Balls are an effective alternative to laundry detergents and fabric softeners.
The two balls contain mineral salts that produce ionised oxygen, activating the water molecules naturally and allowing them to penetrate fibres, lift out dirt and kill bacteria. The movement created by the balls in the machine also softens the garments, eliminating the need for fabric conditioner.
One set of balls lasts for approximately 1,000 washes, and with average use can work out as little as 19 fils per wash. Tried and tested for over a year by H&H, they work just as well as powders or liquids on garments, even washed at 30 degrees, although we recommend presoaking heavier soiled clothes or treating with its sister product, the Eco Stain pre-wash stain remover.
EcoZone Ecoballs, Dh60 (Dh75 for refill), Lakeland, Mirdif Mall, Dubai, 04 284 3460