Chemicals in your Child's Environment

Hidden Dangers

These plastic baby bottles, cups, and nipples could have been made with BPA and phthalates.
These plastic baby bottles, cups, and nipples could have been made with BPA and phthalates. Noel Hendrickson / Getty Images

Parents are often well aware of the more common chemicals that may be in their environment that may harm their children, including asbestos, carbon monoxide, lead, and most pesticides.

Unfortunately, parents often are uninformed about other hazardous chemicals in their child's environment that they also should avoid and may be confused about the risk of some things, like BPA and phthalates in plastic products their kids' use.

VOCs in Paints

VOCs or volatile organic compounds are gases that can be emitted from certain chemicals, including many household products. This can be concerning, as levels of these VOCs are often usually higher indoors than they are outdoors and they have been associated with some health problems, such as headaches, nausea, eye, nose, and throat irritation, and other more serious problems.

Household products that may contain VOCs include:

  • Paint
  • Paint strippers
  • Wood Preservatives
  • Cleaners and disinfectants
  • Formaldehyde

To help reduce your child's exposure to VOCs, it can help to use low- or no- VOC paint and finishes in your home, especially in your baby's nursery. And be sure to only use other products with VOCs in a well-ventilated area, preferably when your kids aren't home, follow instructions, and don't store any leftover products in your home.

Phthalates in Plastics

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "Phthalates are plasticizers that are added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products to impart flexibility and durability." They are found in many products, including food packaging, medical products, and toys.

The issue is that the phthalates in plastics can leach out of these products and can end up contaminating food, soil, and air.

Children can become exposed to phthalates by chewing on toys made with phthalates or eating foods stored in packaging made with phthalates. Even breast milk can become contaminated with phthalates if a breastfeeding mom is exposed to phthalates.

A child's biggest exposure used to be from teethers, rattles, pacifiers, and bottle nipples made with phthalates.

Is exposure to phthalates something to be concerned about? Unfortunately, the phthalate issue is controversial and hasn't been completely settled yet. To be safe, the AAP reports that, "In the United States and Canada, all phthalates have been removed from infant bottle nipples, teethers, and toys intended for mouthing." The AAP also calls for more research on this issue.

Even now though, phthalates are being detected in the urine of infants exposed to phthalates from lotions, powders, and shampoo, since phthalates are also sometimes an ingredient in some cosmetics and fragrances.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has concluded that "few if any children are at risk" from phthalates because "the amount that they ingest does not reach a level that would be harmful" though.

BPA and Baby Bottles

Bisphenol A or BPA is another chemical found in plastics and which can behave similar to estrogen and other hormones in our bodies.

This is unlike phthalates, which are found in soft plastic products, BPA is found in hard plastics, like baby bottles and other plastic containers, such as plastic water bottles.

Both the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and FDA now report that they "have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children."

Although there is no proof that the amount of BPA that can leach out of a baby bottle or water bottle is dangerous, to avoid BPA, you can:

  • switch to glass baby bottles
  • avoid microwaving plastic containers, which may cause BPA to break down and leach out more
  • avoid washing plastic containers in the dishwasher or with harsh detergents, which can also cause BPA to break down and leach out more. Hand wash them instead with a mild detergent.
  • switch to BPA-free plastic baby bottles and sippy cups by avoiding plastic containers that have the plastic identification number "7" which can usually be found inside the recycling symbol on their label, which is a sign that it can leach BPA. Look for plastics marked "1" or "Plastic #1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE)" instead. Other plastics you could use to avoid BPA include plastic number 2, 4, or 5.

Many companies are now making BPA free bottles and sippy cups, including Adiri, Avent, Born Free, Gerber, MAM, Medela, Mother's Milkmate, Playskool, SIGG, and Thermos. While some, like Born Free, only make BPA-free versions of their bottles and sippy cups, others make both, so check the labels if you have a BPA bottle or sippy cup.


American Academy of Pediatrics Technical Report. Pediatric Exposure and Potential Toxicity of Phthalate Plasticizers. Pediatrics 2003 111: 1467-1474.

Baby Care Products: Possible Sources of Infant Phthalate Exposure Sheela Sathyanarayana, Catherine J. Karr, Paula Lozano, Elizabeth Brown, Antonia M. Calafat, Fan Liu, and Shanna H. Swan. Pediatrics 2008; 121: e260-e268.

CPSC. The Risk of Chronic Toxicity Associated with Exposure to Diisononyl Phthalate (DINP) in Children's Products.

EPA. Organic Gases (Volatile Organic Compounds - VOCs).

FDA. Bisphenol A (BPA). Update on Bisphenol A (BPA) for Use in Food: January 2010. Accessed January 2010.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Questions and Answers about the CERHR Bisphenol A (BPA) Report.

NTP Draft Brief on Bisphenol A. April 14, 2008.

The Z Report: A Directory of Bisphenol-A In Baby Bottles and Sippy Cups.

Mercury in Fish

Since 2002, the the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have warned that some fish and shellfish contain high levels of mercury and should be avoided by young children and pregnant women. To reduce this exposure from mercury in fish, other types of fish should only be eaten in limited amounts.

Some parents worry about the association of fish and mercury that they don't let their kids eat any fish.

Since fish and shellfish can be a healthy part of your child's diet, they shouldn't be avoided altogether though. Instead, follow the recommendations of the FDA and EPA:

  • Do not feed your kids fish that are known to contain high levels of mercury, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish.
  • Limit the amounts of most other fish to just two servings a week, including shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, catfish, fish sticks, and fast-food fish sandwiches. Because albacore ("white") tuna does have more mercury than canned light tuna, albacore tuna should be eaten just once a week.
  • Check local advisories for mercury levels before eating any fish that you catch yourself or that is caught by friends or family members. If you aren't sure about the mercury level, only let your kids eat one serving of that fish and don't let them eat any other fish that week.


Radon is a natural radioactive gas that can cause cancer, but which you can't see, smell, or taste.

It gets into your home from the surrounding soil, rock, and water.

Although parents often believe that their family is only at risk from radon if they live in certain parts of the United States, the EPA reports that homes in every state have been found to have high levels of radon.

Although you can find out if there are high levels of radon where you live, the EPA recommends that everyone do a short-term radon test in their homes.

These tests can be purchased in most hardware stores and are easy to use. If you find high levels of radon in your home, the EPA offers advice on protecting your family from radon.

Second-Hand Smoke

Although many moms stop smoking during their pregnancy, many start smoking again after their baby is born. This postnatal exposure to smoke by their children is also bad though and according to the Surgeon General exposes kids to many chemicals, including "formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic ammonia and hydrogen cyanide."

Being exposed to second hand smoke, even if the parent or family member just smokes outside the home, is thought to increase a child's chance of having ear infections, allergies, asthma, wheezing, pneumonia and frequent upper respiratory tract infections.

Smoke can also trigger asthma attacks in many children and asthma attacks in children of smokers are often worse than in children who aren't exposed to someone that smokes.

And infants who are exposed to a caregiver that smokes, or a mother that smoked while she was pregnant, are up to 4 times more likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Although it is best to quit smoking to eliminate your child's exposure to the chemicals in second-hand smoke, at the very least, reduce the exposure by not smoking near your child, in your home, or in your car.


EPA. Fish Consumption Advisories.

EPA. A Citizen's Guide to Radon: The Guide to Protecting Yourself and Your Family from Radon.

American Academy of Pediatrics: Tobacco's toll: implications for the pediatrician. - Pediatrics - 01-Apr-2001; 107(4): 794-8.

The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: 6 Major Conclusions of the Surgeon General Report. A Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006.

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