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How parents can make a healthier environment for healthier kids (on Earth Day and every day)

This Earth Day, like a lot of days lately, looks different this year. With social distancing and other public safety measures in place, we won’t be spending time in community gardens, planting trees with neighbors, or gathering to celebrate. However, there is still a lot we can do to combat the effects of climate change right where we are.

That’s a good thing, too, because the effects of climate change have real risks to our health and our kids’ health. Droughts and floods affect crop production all over the world leading to food insecurity. Fewer winter freezes and longer, hotter summers increase the spread of mosquito- and tick-borne diseases and result in more deaths due to heat. Increased wildfires can make respiratory problems worse hundreds of miles away. All of these are good reasons to be concerned. The good news is we all have the power to affect change for the health of our environment and the health of children—today and in the future. Children’s Mercy physicians have gathered some ideas for you and your family to make a difference—some ideas for now and others to use later when we can safely be out and about again.

Use less plastic.

  • Buy food and other products with less packaging or compostable packaging.
  • Choose paper bags at the grocery store until they allow reusable bags from home.
  • Use glass containers in the kitchen. When plastic gets hot in the microwave or dishwasher, it can leach chemicals into our food and water that can affect hormone function in our bodies. Kids are especially vulnerable to these chemicals. BPA-free doesn’t mean chemical-free, so it is best to use materials other than plastic when possible. If plastic containers are all you have for food storage, wash them by hand and do not microwave them.

Be a Mindful Consumer

Buy less; fix things instead of replacing them.

Many things that break can be repaired with a little time and effort (plus a little help from a YouTube tutorial). If you can’t fix something yourself, after the COVID pandemic improves, look up a local repair business that can. It will save you money, keep things out of the landfill, reduce wasteful new production and support the local economy.

Exchange and share what you have – after the COVID pandemic.

Sometimes the thing you need is as close as a text away. Borrowing things from friends and family and loaning your things to them is a way to save money, build community and create less waste. Join a “buy nothing” parent group online for exchanging kids’ clothes, toys and other household goods. There’s no better bargain than free, and—who knows—you may even make a new friend!

Buy from companies that produce responsibly. Read labels and ask companies how they treat their products.

As consumers, we have the power to choose what we buy and to let companies know that the safety and wellbeing of our children and our environment will affect our purchasing choices. Before you buy a product, look up the company’s phone number and ask about the chemicals, ingredients or additives in their product, such as flame retardants sprayed on rugs or cosmetic ingredients you cannot pronounce. It is in companies’ best interest to listen to their customers and address their concerns. 

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics gives guidelines about additives that are harmful to children.
  • There are multiple shopping applications that help consumers buy responsibly. Consider using “Think Dirty” or other apps that prioritize your personal preferences.

Buy local.

Buy local food.

Purchasing and eating local food is good for us for so many reasons. These are just a few:

  • It is fresher, so it tastes better.
  • It doesn’t require long-distance travel from the farm to your home, which reduces use of petroleum products and therefore improves air quality and reduces pollution.
  • It connects us to the people who grow our food.
  • It improves our local economy, meaning more money stays in our communities.

Buy local goods.

Local businesses are an important part of building and maintaining a healthy community. Especially during times like these, it is vital to support the local businesses we love. While non-essential businesses are closed for regular in-store shopping or dining, many are still able and more than willing to serve customers with alternatives like online shopping, curbside pick-up, delivery and more.

  • They tend to stock more local products than larger chain stores do, which reduces pollution from transporting goods long-distance.
  • They are often centrally located in walkable areas, reducing pollution from cars.
  • Local business owners are more invested in the community and can have a large impact on the local environment.
  • Local business owners are more responsive to customers, so they are more likely to know about the products they carry and listen to requests for environmentally friendly, kid-safe products.

Support policies that ensure environmental health and safety.

Laws have an enormous impact on our day-to-day lives, including on the environments where we live, work, play and go to school. They also impact regulations around the resources we use (like water, electricity and transportation) and products we buy and use for our families. It is important to stay informed on the issues that affect our health and wellbeing.

  • Keep track of your election days* and vote for local, state and federal candidates and legislation that recognize the importance of preserving a healthy environment for children and families. Voting by mail is an option if you are concerned about the risk of COVID-19 exposure by voting in person.

*     Some election days have been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Stay up to date on when to vote.

Get kids into nature.

Science has proven that spending time in green space is beneficial to our mental health. That’s true for grown-ups as well as for children. Getting kids involved with nature makes them more invested in conserving the environment. As long as you are spending time at home, consider trying some of these fun, hands-on experiences with the kids in your life.

  • Give them a chance to grow their green thumb. Gardening with kids is a multisensory, nurturing activity that reduces our carbon footprint, teaches self-sustainability and teaches science skills all at the same time.
  • Grow a potato, garlic, celery or lettuce straight from the kitchen. It teaches kids where their food comes from and empowers them to grow their own produce.
  • Make a worm box for composting. This one is great for kids who like gross stuff.
  • Press flowers. Preserving dried flowers is an easy way to learn more about different types of plants and enjoy them year-round.
  • Build a mini landscape or terrarium. All you need is a few small, hearty plants like succulents, some potting soil and whatever accessories or toys your child wants to decorate with.
  • Watch age-appropriate movies about the environment. The Lorax is a favorite animated choice. Animal documentaries are also an interesting option for a variety of ages.

Go by foot or by bike

Research shows that driving less and moving our bodies more is a great way to benefit the environment and benefit ourselves at the same time. Walking and biking with kids helps build healthy habits early in life. Here are just a few ways everyone benefits:

  • Walking and biking improve physical health, putting you at less risk for many diseases and health conditions.
  • Walking and biking, like other forms of exercise, lift your mood and decrease stress.
  • Fewer cars on the road mean higher air quality, making it easier to breathe.
  • Fewer vehicles on the road mean less noise pollution, which affects quality of life.
  • More people traveling by foot and by bike cuts down on greenhouse gases, which can positively affect climate change.
  • Exercising together as a family is a free and healthy way of bonding.
  • Driving less saves money on gas and vehicle maintenance.

After COVID, use public transportation.

  • Using public transportation has many of the same environmental benefits as biking and walking. In addition, public transportation increases contact with your neighbors and community, giving you a stronger sense of belonging.

Clean with clean ingredients.

Exposure to chemicals even in tiny doses can have harmful effects on children. Luckily, harsh chemicals are not needed for maintenance housekeeping. These five ingredients can be used in combination to clean almost anything.* During the current COVID pandemic, you should continue to clean with soap and water, and bleach; the following chemicals are not disinfectants. 

  • Lemon
  • Baking soda
  • Borax
  • Salt
  • White vinegar

*If you have immunocompromised family members, it is a good idea to also disinfect high-touch surfaces.

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Medical Director Environmental Health, Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU)

Pediatrician, Blue Valley Urgent Care