Is Your Kid’s Afterschool Activity Toxic?

Is Your Kid’s Afterschool Activity Toxic?

January 3, 2023

By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

Navigating the endless world of afterschool activities just got trickier. It’s no longer enough to be up on what is fun, cool, and developmentally stimulating. Gone are the days of only trying to find out who is the best piano teacher, or which of your kid’s many friends might also be willing to take a rollerblading, swimming, or stop animation class. Now you also need to know if the afterschool activity of choice is safe.

That’s right, safe.

Do you have a little gymnast at home? You might be interested to know the recent news from the gym: Scientists studying collegiate gymnasts at a U.S. training facility found that their blood contained high levels of a chemical known as BDE-153, a breakdown product of a toxic flame retardant. The source is believed to be dust created by retardant-treated foam blocks that fill the safety pit over which the gymnasts practice. Does this make you want to scream or pull your hair out? You’re not alone.

Unfortunately even the most innocent childhood scenes can hide unexpected dangers. Knowledge is power. So here are six key places parents should investigate when choosing afterschool activities:

1. Mats (including sleeping mats), toys, and other items made with soft vinyl typically contain phthalates, an endocrine-disrupting chemical linked to multiple health effects.

2.  Indoor swimming pools treated with chlorine fill surrounding air with vaporized chlorine, a poison that’s easily inhaled by swimmers.

3.  Art supplies are made with myriad unhealthy chemicals, including hazardous solvents in markers and pens, bake-able play clays made with phthalates, chemical adhesives, acrylic paints containing ammonia and formaldehyde, spray paints and other spray products filled with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and instant paper mâché contaminated by asbestos fibers.

4.  Face paints and theater face cosmetics are often manufactured with heavy metals like lead and chromium. Similarly, make up is frequently toxic—tricky for our youngest actors. Common trouble spots include VOCs in nail polish, lead in lipsticks, fragrances containing with phthalates, and formulas relying on untested compounds whose health effects remain unknown.

5.  Snacks, often provided at afterschool activities, can be filled with unhealthy ingredients as cash-strapped school programs (or private programs looking to cut corners) resort to cheap items packed with chemical additives, sodium, artificial colors and flavors, and trans fats.

 6. Playgrounds can expose kids to lead paint, arsenic-tainted soil from treated lumber, synthetic crumb rubber surfaces that release toxic fumes, artificial turf containing lead, and play sand laden with carcinogenic crystalline silica and tremolite, a mineral related to asbestos.

The good news? You don’t have to lock your kid up after school in his or her room this semester. Safety is as simple as keeping our children away from sources of trouble, and choosing less hazardous activities. If your child is already, say, an avid swimmer, you can take steps to mitigate the exposure. Choose an outdoor pool or a well-ventilated one in a room with high ceilings. And always pack your own snacks.

To read more on this topic, check out the following resources: