Avoiding Toxins in the Backyard

School's out and that means that my kids are spending a lot more time in our backyard. I am a big fan of outdoor play for kids and adults. Unfortunately, there are several ways that we adults inadvertently make our backyards less of an ideal play location for our children by introducing toxic chemicals. Here are some ways you can make sure that your backyard stays safe and eco-friendly this summer.

Pesticide-free Bug Control

In my area, hot weather means bugs. They sneak in your home looking for moisture, shelter from the heat, and, of course, some morsels to eat. Just the other day the Pesticide Salesman stopped by my door to let me know that two of my neighbors were spraying for ants and spiders and did I want to sign up too (at a discount, of course!) so that they didn't all run into my house when he, "flushed them out" of the neighbors' yards and crawl spaces. Turns out I'm much more worried about the neurotoxins in pesticides than ants and spiders, so I turned him down. But I'm not a huge fan of bugs in my house. I've had ant, fruit fly, and cockroach invasions and lived to tell the tale, without the use of toxic pesticides! This is my tried-and-true ant bait/ trap (keep away from little hands and animals), and a non-toxic spray we use around the perimeter of our house to discourage cockroaches. House spiders are generally welcome at my home! Check out Beyond Pesticides for safe alternatives to toxic pest control.

Organic Lawn Care

Skip the synthetic fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides to keep your backyard safe and healthy for little ones to play in. According to Beyond Pesticides, "Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogencity, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 15 with neurotoxicity, and 11 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system." Children are especially vulnerable to these toxic chemicals because they spend more time outside crawling and playing and because their bodies and immune systems are still developing. If you do want to use a fertilizer, there are safer options (look for fertilizers that are NOFA Approved or OMRI Listed). Check out these additional resources about organic lawn care from Healthy Child Healthy WorldWebMD, and Beyond Pesticides.

PVC-free Backyard Pool

It is very hard to find an inflatable pool that is not made of the dreaded PVC (aka vinyl or plastic #3). A vinyl pool is especially problematic if you know that your kids will end up drinking a bunch of the water while playing in the pool (as mine inevitably do). Rigid pools are a better option if you have the space to store them (store them out of the sun to extend the life of the plastic and prevent cracking). Rigid pools are reasonably inexpensive, usually made of safer plastic (such as #4 polyethylene -- check the bottom for the number) and often available at your local drugstore during the hotter months. If you do end up using a PVC pool, allow it to off-gas outside before using it. You can reduce your phthalate exposure from PVC pools by changing the water frequently and choosing a shady spot to prevent the pool from overheating.

PVC-free Pool Gear

PVC-free pool inflatables are nearly impossible to find. Polyethylene and EVA foam toys such as pool noodles, water squirters, and mats are a safer bet. You can also find kickboards made of EVA foam. It's very difficult to find life jackets or other flotation devices that do not contain PVC. My kids use Puddle Jumpers life jackets covered with polyester fabric. Unfortunately, as with most flotation devices, the foam core is probably made with at least some PVC (when I called Stearns about the Puddle Jumper, the customer service representative said she could not tell me exactly what the foam was made of but that it did contain both PVC and polyethylene), but I figure that at least the material right against their skin is not vinyl. If you do use PVC pool gear, be sure to let if off-gas outside first before using it.

Non-toxic Sand Box

If you live in California, you've possibly seen the Prop 65 cancer warning on bags of play sand. That's because the super cheap fifty pound bag of sand you can pick up at home improvement stores or garden centers isn't actually sand. According to Healthy Child Healthy World, "'Play sand' is a manufactured material made from ground quartz that can contain carcinogenic crystalline silica and a mineral called tremolite, which is related to asbestos." The issue is inhalation, so if you see a dust cloud of tiny airborne particles above the sand box, you have a problem. If you cannot afford to fill your sandbox or sand table with non-toxic sand (such as Sandtastik sand), choose a grittier (less fine) size that has been washed to reduce dust, keep sand slightly damp during sand play to reduce dust, and wash hands thoroughly after play and especially before eating. Be sure to avoid making a sandbox with pressure-treated wood which exposes children to pesticides. Click here for additional tips for non-toxic sand play.

Pesticide-free Play Structure

Swing sets are a great way to inspire your kids to spend time outside, but, unfortunately, some wooden play structures are made with pressure-treated wood. Pressure-treated wood is injected with pesticides that can end up on your kids' hands (and mouths) and on the ground and toys beneath your structure. If purchasing a wooden play structure, choose one made of made of redwood or cedar, which are naturally pest- and rot-resistant, and use low-VOC eco-friendly sealant. Click here to learn more about the problems with pressure-treated wood and how to minimize your family's exposure to toxic pesticides if you already have a play structure made of pressure-treated wood in your backyard.

Lead-free Hose

Garden hoses can leach BPA, lead, phthalates and other undesirable chemicals into the water. Because my children inevitably end up drinking some water during backyard water play (even though I actively discourage it), I wanted to purchase the least toxic hose I could find. I consulted HealthyStuff's report on garden hoses and ended up purchasing this hose. Note that in general hoses are not intended to provide drinking water. And even hoses explicitly labeled "safe for drinking water" may contain harmful substances. In order to avoid toxins in garden hoses, avoid hoses with a Prop 65 warning or hoses made of PVC/ vinyl, store your hose in the shade, and allow water to run for a few seconds before using. When in doubt, do not drink from garden hoses. Also be mindful about what type of hose you use on a vegetable garden. Click here for additional tips for avoiding toxins from garden hoses.

How do you keep your backyard safe for kids?

Related Posts

Additional Resources for a Safe & Eco-friendly Summer

Or check out my Eco-friendly Summer Fun Pinterest Board

photo credit (top): Travis Swan via photopin cc 
photo credit (middle): MarLeah Joy via photopin cc

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  1. I still need to get on the hose thing. We don't drink out of it but I do occasionally hand water the vegetable garden. It's on the "to do" list.

  2. We're good with everything on this list except the pool play things. We don't have a backyard pool, but I have, when my girls were younger, used the water wing things. Thankfully they are older and we don't use them now.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. With kids taking to the outdoors this summer it is super important to be mindful of the "toxic traps". Especially pesticides, as a child I thought I was allergic to grass turns out it was a reaction to toxic pesticides.

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