Is Your Kid’s Summer Camp Toxic?

Is Your Kid’s Summer Camp Toxic?

January 8, 2023

By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

This spring has been achingly slow to start, with record breaking frigid temperatures in much of the northeast. After a long, cold, and snowy winter, it’s insult to injury. And yet parents find themselves right in the middle of planning summer activities, including signing up for camp. As you organize for warmer days and nights wearing a wool sweater, consider that not all activities are created equal. As with afterschool activities—like gymnastics—some summer fun has the potential to be more toxic than other summer fun. Obviously if your kid is already attached to a sport or a hobby, we’re not suggesting you pull them. But you can and should take steps to reduce exposure to what might be harmful about any given activity. Washing hands after playing and before eating, for example, can always go a long way. And, if you have a choice, why not opt for the safest summer program? There is plenty else to be mindful of as the temperature soars—from sunburn as well as unsafe chemicals in sunscreen to Lyme ticks. Setting your kids up for harmless fun will put joy front and center. To date we haven’t found anything toxic about catching fireflies!

Here’s a critical checklist of six things to consider when signing up for summer camp:

  • THE SETTING When the kids are young, we’re talking day camp, not sleep away. Where is it held? Sparse natural spaces in the woods or a one week session on an organic farm are less likely to be sprayed with pesticides than a more manicured or landscaped spot. And what surrounds the camp? Is there a conventional apple orchard next door? They spray heavily.
  • SUNSCREEN & BUG SPRAY Many camps have policies on these very necessary summer staples. Ask if campers can bring their own and apply, if counselors can help applying, or if all campers are expected to use the camp’s own creams and sprays. They may be stocking a product you would prefer not to have your child use. Choose a camp that will accommodate your preferences.
  • SWIMMING Cooling off on a summer day is heaven. Ask where your child will be dunking. An indoor swimming pool treated with chlorine will fill the unventilated room with vaporized chlorine, a poison that’s easily inhaled by swimmers. Outdoor pools will at least release those fumes into the air. Do remind your kid to use the bathroom, not the pool—indoors or out. A recent study proved that toxic chemicals form when urine reacts with chlorine. A lake, a stream, or even a beach can be preferable, but both can have their own pollutants and other issues. Get to know the body of water.
  • NAP MATS Young campers will likely have a snooze or at least some downtime in the heat of the day. Soft vinyl mats typically contain phthalates, an endocrine-disrupting chemical linked to multiple health effects. And foam mats can contain flame retardants. Ask your camp if your kid can BYO their own mat from home. A fluffy blanket will do the trick, safely.
  • CAMP FOOD If you’ve been through the ringer of school food, it will come as no surprise that camp food can be bottom of the barrel stuff. It may involve commodity meat campfire burgers, and cheap items-including buns and cheese—packed with chemical additives, sodium, artificial colors and flavors, and trans fats. Summer inevitably means a treat of ice cream or popsicles, and not all of these are created equal by any means. Choose a program where you can pack your camper’s lunch and snack. And fill up a reusable bottle with water to avoid any artificially colored “bug” juice.
  • ARTS & CRAFTS Art supplies are made with a whole host of 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. Thankfully many of the rope bracelets and lanyards typically made at camp are crafted from safer materials. Get to know the arts program by asking your camp what they craft.

While the benefits of unstructured play are well documented, there’s no need to keep your kids home from camp just to keep them safe! Not at all. Just choose your spot wisely, then pack your own sunscreen, bug spray, lunch, water, and snacks. Remind your child to wash hands after playing or putting on sunscreen and before eating—and to have fun!

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