Choose Safe Places: Keeping children healthy in the environments where they grow, learn, and play

The environment plays a large role in children’s health.

Did you know that children are more at risk from exposures to harmful substances than adults? Children drink more water and breathe more air relative to their body size than adults do. Additionally, behaviors that are common in children, such as crawling or putting their hands or other objects in their mouths, can expose them to more chemicals. Because children are still growing and developing, exposures to harmful substances can have long-term impacts.

Many children spend large amounts of time in child care facilities, making it important to keep these spaces safe from harmful substances.

What is Choose Safe Places?

The Choose Safe Places (CSP) program is a new initiative to protect children from harmful exposures to chemicals while attending child care centers. The CSP program works with child care providers and others, such as local planners, to ensure child care centers are located in areas free of harmful substances such as lead, arsenic, or volatile organic compounds. CSP considers four key elements when assessing environmentally safe child care locations:

1. Former uses of the site
Contaminants can stay on a site long after the activities that caused the contamination have stopped. Knowing what a property was used for in the past will help identify potential contaminants. For example, a building where manufacturing occurred may contain contamination or a property used as a landfill could have a variety of chemicals in soil or water. Just because a property was used for something previously does not mean it is not suitable for a child care center, but these situations should be further evaluated. Lead is a common contaminant in older buildings because lead paint was commonly used until it was banned in 1978.

2. Movement of harmful substances from adjacent properties
Chemicals can sometimes move through the air, water, and soil to neighboring buildings or properties, therefore it is important to observe nearby sites and activities that might create environmental exposures. Hazardous waste sites, dry cleaners, nail salons, and gas stations are some potential nearby activities to be aware of. Additionally, sometimes chemicals can travel through groundwater and then volatilize, or become gases, and enter buildings or homes. This is known as vapor intrusion, and some of these chemical vapors can be harmful when present in indoor air.

3. Presence of naturally occurring harmful substances
Naturally occurring contamination comes from substances already in the environment, rather than from chemicals or other hazardous materials used or manufactured by humans. Radon is one of those naturally occurring contaminants. Radon seeps into homes from the rock under the building’s foundation. In addition, arsenic and other metals can occur naturally. These metals may be present in soil or groundwater and may require further evaluation.

4. Access to safe drinking water
Drinking water that is piped into your home, school, or office comes from either a public water supply or a private well. Knowing about issues that can affect water quality is important for good health. Lead, nitrates, and bacteria are common water contaminants that can affect children’s health. Public water systems are regulated by state and federal laws to ensure drinking water safety. However, private wells must be protected and maintained by the property owner.

What can planners do to help?

Local planners and zoning or permitting officials can be educated to ask questions about nearby facilities and former uses of a property before granting a permit for a new child care center. They can also ask about the presence of nearby child care centers when considering a permit for a new facility such as a nail salon or dry cleaner that may produce harmful substances.

State health officials are interested in partnering with you to provide resources that may be helpful in asking these questions and ensuring that children are protected from harmful exposures. Please fill out our short survey on your municipality or county’s current zoning rules concerning child care and what resources might be most helpful to you. For more information about the CSP program you may contact us at (919) 707-5900 or nchace@dhhs.nc.gov.

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