DFW Daycares Go Green
Aug 02, 2013 07:01PM
● By Kim Rice
Eighteen-month-old Joey crawls across the floor carrying a block between his teeth. Classmate Annabelle approaches, and in a matter of seconds, the same toy has shifted to her mouth. Later, the block they shared will be sprayed with chlorine bleach or other harsh chemicals. Welcome to the epicenter of kiddie germs and disinfectants: childcare.
At an age when children are most engaged with their environment and correspondingly, most vulnerable to it, preschoolers need to be in safe places for their growing bodies. Fortunately, intense efforts by many childcare centers to implement strong environmental standards and use eco-friendly innovations are “greening up” the facilities.
One green-tech tool is transforming the way daycares deal with germs. The ZONO machine sanitizes by injecting supercharged oxygen (ozone) into a sealed unit the size of a refrigerator and then reconverts it to standard oxygen. Teachers can toss all kinds of children's items like playthings, mats, bouncy seats and even plush toys into baskets and roll them inside. In a half-hour, 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria are wiped out, and the items are ready for use again. Not only does it lessen the need for strong chemicals and free teachers from sometimes hours of spray sanitizing, it reduces the problem of spreading germs.
"We keep an illness posting right on the wall," says Karen Shelley-Kepley, executive director of the Dallas area Kids 'R' Kids Learning Centers in West Frisco and Legacy West, early adopters of the technology. "In tracking the trends, it's easy to see that the ZONO is working. In years past, if an illness started, it spread quickly. But by using the ZONO, we have the ability to keep illnesses contained in a classroom or from spreading altogether." The Kids 'R' Kids centers' green focus has paid off with an Eco-Healthy Child Care endorsement from the Children's Environmental Health Network (CEHN).
Founded just over 20 years ago, CEHN is a national organization that works to protect the developing child from environmental health hazards and promote a healthier environment. Their childcare program currently works with more than 1,600 endorsed facilities in the U.S., Canada and Australia. A key CEHN message is that anything you put indoors or outdoors can get into the body of a child. In a daycare facility, those exposures can mean pesticides, chemicals outgassing from carpets or particle board furniture, lead in drinking water,phthalates in toys, solvents in art supplies, mold in sheetrock, arsenic in the playground equipment and toxins in cleaning products, just to name just a few.
The challenges are huge, says CEHN Training and Policy Director Carol Stroebel, but addressing them is critical. “Children's developing systems can be knocked off track by environmental exposures, and their bodies don't have the option of going back and doing it again,” she says. “That's why kids are more vulnerable than adults.”
Another Healthy Child Care-endorsed facility in the DFW area is The da Vinci School, a nonprofit organization that teaches children 18 months through primer. Located in North Dallas, the school's new campus pulls out all the stops when it comes to environmental quality. “The health of our children is our number one priority,” says Mary Ann Greene, the founding director.
In classrooms, children sit atop cotton rugs on natural cork floors that are cleaned with vinegar and water. In addition to using no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint and solid wood furniture, Greene looked extensively to find the least toxic alternative to just about everything. Gym mats are made from phthalate-free, lead-free vinyl; specialized “classroom crayons” are used on their whiteboards instead of chemical-laden markers.
For the playground, she chose untreated hardwood chips. Even though it means replacing them every few years, Greene says that the more common choice of ground-up tires is “really awful, because there are all kinds of bad chemicals in the tire-making process. Especially for little kids who will be sitting on them, shredded tires are stinky and hot, and they outgas toxins.”
Greene's personal exposure to chemicals in her 20s has made her cautious and vigilant about children's health. When looking for an environmentally healthy facility, she advises parents to “use their noses.” “For a lot of people, it might smell clean because the center has used a lot of Lysol,” she said. “But is it a chemical smell or really fresh air?”
She also recommends asking centers what kind of cleaning products they use and how they control pests inside and out. For her part, she uses the least toxic products available, primarily those made by Seventh Generation, and works with a Ph.D. entomologist that provides natural pest control.
She adds an additional question to ask about the kids' “inner” environment: “What kind of snack foods are the children receiving?” Some facilities provide sugary snacks, desserts and foods full of dyes and colorings. Greene opts for organic pretzels, apples and bananas.
When a child's health it concerned, it pays to ask questions and do homework. A complete list of Eco-Healthy Child Care-endorsed facilities can be found at cehn.org/ehcc.
Kim Rice is an environmental health writer in Dallas.