A survey conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley has found elevated levels of environmental contaminants, including formaldehyde, in child care centers in the Bay Area.
The study, released to the public on Oct. 24 after final review by the California Air Resources Board, evaluated 40 child care centers in Alameda and Monterey counties for potential environmental toxins.
Though researchers found that overall levels of contaminants were within levels of risk determined by federal regulations, in 35 of the 40 centers, the researchers found levels of five compounds that exceeded guidelines for levels of safe exposure.
Formaldehyde was one of the five found in excess and is known to have both short-term and long-term health effects, according to Stanley Young, communications director for the California Air Resources Board.
Many organizations, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have identified formaldehyde as a carcinogen. It is commonly found in furniture glue, carpet, paints, fabrics, building materials and furnishings made from pressed woods.
To measure the levels of environmental contaminants, researchers in the Berkeley study collected air and floor dust samples and tested for a wide range of chemicals, including those that are small enough to be inhaled into the lungs.
To reflect a range of environmental settings, the centers in the study were chosen based on their locations in geographically diverse communities with a mix of urban, rural and agricultural areas, according to Asa Bradman, the lead researcher of the study and associate director of the UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health.
Apart from their homes, young children spend most of their time in child care centers, according to the report. In fact, many infants and young children can spend as much as 10 hours a day, five days a week in child care centers, according to the report.
“In California, about 1.1 million children aged five and under attend preschools or childcare facilities,” Young said in an email. “By kindergarten, half of all Californian children have attended a licensed childcare facility.”
As their immune systems have not fully developed yet, children are very vulnerable to the adverse effects of chemicals and toxins. Recent studies have shown that child care center environments may contain lead, pesticides, allergens and other contaminants hazardous to children’s health. According to Bradman, this has led to an emerging awareness of child care safety.
The research is notable because it the first comprehensive study to obtain data on all types of contaminants that children are exposed to in child care centers, according to Young.
“Previous studies have examined environmental pollutants in schools and homes, but to date there was little information on children’s exposures to pollutants in preschool environments,” Young said in an email. “This study was important in that it filled an important data gap.”
Victoria Leonard, a specialist at UC San Francisco’s Institute for Health and Aging who was not involved in the study, said that with the amount of exposure to environmental chemicals that young children face, she was surprised that the levels the study found were not even higher.
Leonard works to raise awareness of young children’s exposure to environmental chemicals. In 2010, she and Bradman collaborated with other researchers to put together a toolkit for parents and childcare professionals with practical information on the use of pesticides and how to prevent and manage pest problems in early care and education programs.