Avoiding Harmful Toxins

Toxins to Avoid

Are there any toxins that can harm my baby and her ability to learn?

Yes! As distressing as this may be, there are in fact quite a few toxins that can harm your baby and cause learning, developmental or even behavioral disabilities. What's worse is that many of these toxins may easily be within reach of your children.

Here, we have listed some of the most common and damaging toxins to your baby's brain:

PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

PVC is a very toxic plastic commonly used in soft children's products. A lot of the time, other chemicals are added to make PVC either softer and squishier or more rigid and durable. Additives like lead, phthalates and cadmium can leech out of toys and are especially dangerous when your child puts them in her mouth.

Although there haven't been many studies on these chemicals and their direct effects on children, they have been linked to kidney and brain damage, as well as cancer in children. We also do know that phthalates interfere with hormone systems (this helps to regulate growth and development in a child) in animals.

Depending on where you live, PVC may be banned or restricted for certain age groups. Make sure you check labels and buy products that are certified PVC-Free. Some companies like Lego, Early Start and Primetime Playthings have stopped using PVC in most of their products. Take the time to check and ask about products - be especially careful when purchasing these products which are primary sources for PVC:

  • Soft plastic toys

  • Teething rings

  • Skin lotions


There are many types of pesticides which can deal different and varying levels of damage to your child. Pesticides can be found in:

  • Weed and pest killers

  • Pesticides on fruits and vegetables

  • Bug repellant

Pesticides have been linked to neurochemical and behavioral changes in animals, as well as decreases in stamina, coordination and memory in children. Organophosphates, a class of pesticides which is used to control pests at home, blocks the action of enzymes that helps your baby control skeletal and muscle action as well as regulate memory. Keep in mind that pesticides are especially dangerous to children because its residue is stored in fat cells and remain in the body forever.

To minimize the risk to your children, here are safer alternatives to using pesticides:

  • Safer Bug Repellent - For children under 3, any type of bug repellant should not be used as they are more likely to rub and put their hands in their mouth. Instead, cover the stroller and crib with a mosquito screen and make sure they wear long sleeves and pants tucked into their socks. As they grow older, you may want to use natural herbal-based bug repellant instead of chemical bug repellants containing DEET.

  • Keep the bugs away - To keep bugs out of your home, make sure to clean all areas (especially food spills) and make sure water does not collect anyplace unnoticed. You can also install screens on windows and doors and store things in airtight containers to prevent infestation.

  • Non-Toxic Pesticides - There are many home-made recipes that can attract insects, some of which are made from food that can be poisonous to pests: try oatmeal and plaster of Paris, or flour with borax. Do research on how to make these, and sprinkle them in areas where you have seen insects or where you suspect they are entering your home from. Keep in mind that although these are non-toxic, they can still make people sick, so remember to clean up before you let your baby play on the ground and always wash your hand thoroughly.

Apart from these, keep your baby safe by reading labels of any substances you use and make sure they do not contain any toxic pesticides like nicotine, rotenone, pyrethrum and sabadilla (note that this is not the full list). You may also want to keep your younger children away from other gardens or backyards as you may not know what previous owners have used as pesticides or herbicides.


For children, mercury is known to cause problems with concentration and learning, and can invoke symptoms such as tremors, irritability, drowsiness, impaired memory and sleep disturbances. In the worst of cases, babies develop visual and gait problems as well as mental retardation.

Mercury levels often build up inside a fish's system (mercury is emitted into the environment from coal-powered plants and it falls back into the earth and waterways). Although pregnant women and younger children are advised to avoid or limit their consumptions of specific types of fish like tuna, keep in mind that some types of fish are beneficial to your child's brain development.

Mercury can be found in the following household items, so keep your children away from these products and remember to dispose of them properly.

  • Thermometers

  • Some athletic shoes

  • Dental fillings

  • Fluorescent lamps

  • Batteries

  • Some types of paints

  • Small appliances


Lead is a type of heavy metal found in various items around your house including paint, batteries, pipes, gasoline, toys, some ceramics, and tap water. Your baby is most likely to be exposed to lead through swallowing paint dust and drinking tap water.

Lead is classified as a developmental neurotoxin, and it is known to directly affect a child's brain developmental processes causing behavioral defects. Although most new products must abide by federal safety guidelines regarding lead levels, you may want to be cautious and take the following precautions at home.

Flush out your water pipes (until the water is as cold as it can be) before using it for drinking. Use cold water instead of hot water for cooking; hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead.

  • Inspect your pipes - lead pipes are dull gray but look shiny when you scratch them

  • Keep areas where your children play clean and free of dust. (Keep in mind that you cannot see, smell or taste lead.)

  • Wash toys often.

  • If the paint on your walls contain lead, wash them or cover them up with wallpaper.

  • Check product labels.

  • Test your home for lead (at-home tests are available).


Solvents are liquids used to dissolve something else, many of which you use daily. Some solvents are not toxic when inhaled (like water), but most other solvents can cause depression of the central nervous system, skin irritation as well as some other permanent side effects to your child's brain and heart. The following are common household solvents that release toxic fumes, so take care to keep them locked up and away from your children.

  • Ethanol (alcohol)

  • Paint thinner

  • Furniture stripper

  • Dry-cleaning fluid

  • Degreaser

  • Turpentine

  • Acetone-based nail polish remover

  • Glue

  • Aerosol sprays

  • Shoe care products

  • Oil-based paints and more

After using any of these products, remember to air out the space where you have used the product or even the object you've used them on (e.g. dry-cleaned clothes).

Flame Retardants

Flame retardants were first introduced as a safety feature for children's pajamas and home furniture. These chemicals prevent fire from spreading - however, there have been studies that indicate that they are particularly harmful during the critical period of brain development.

Research shows that some flame retardants (especially PBDE or polybrominated diphenyl ether) mimic thyroid hormones in the body which may then interrupt a child's brain development. Some manufacturers like Apple, IBM, IKEA and Volvo have found ways that meet fire safety standards and yet do not use toxins such as PBDE, providing safer alternatives for you and your family.


Arsenic is another known neurotoxin and although it can be found naturally in the earth's crust, the most harmful type of arsenic is man-made and used to preserve wood. Chromate copper arsenate (CCA) change hormonal functions (even at low levels), and therefore largely impact the developing brain. Through contact with arsenic-treated wood (like a wooden playground set), high levels of arsenic is directly released to your child's hands. In fact, arsenic leeches into the soil around and underneath the structure, so make sure your children do not put their hands near their mouth until they have washed their hands.

What should you do if you have existing arsenic-treated wood?

  • Test - there are at-home testing kits available to test for arsenic.

  • Seal - coat the object or structure with waterproof sealant (every two years).

  • Replace - if you believe that any structure or object still poses a threat to you and your child, it may be better to dispose of it or replace it with a safer alternative.

Note: Do not burn or sand arsenic-treated wood, it is extremely hazardous!

Cigarette Smoke

Second-hand smoke is perhaps one of the most common toxins that your child will encounter. It is responsible for countless lower respiratory tract infections in children under 18 months and has been known to aggravate symptoms in children with asthma. Aside from health effects, researchers have also found a link between tobacco smoke and intellectual and behavioral problems. Children who have had higher exposure to second-hand smoke showed reduced vocabulary and were even held back a grade in early education.

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