Study Finds Reasons to Improve Indoor Air Quality in Childcare Facilities

October 2012

A first-of-its-kind study of the indoor air quality of 40 childcare centers in California finds that most concentrations of contaminants in the air are well within state and federal guidelines, although a few chemicals such as formaldehyde substantially exceeded guidelines.

Randy Maddalena and Thomas McKone of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) participated in the study, which was led by Asa Bradman and researchers in the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health, School of Public Health. McKone has a joint appointment at the School of Public Health and in Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD), and Maddalena is a scientist in EETD.

"Although most of the VOCs that we commonly measure indoors are similar in childcare facilities and other indoor environments like homes and schools, our findings suggest that there are a lot more chemicals in the air than what we commonly measure. In addition to the target VOCs in our study, we identified over a hundred other VOCs in the air, many of which do not have reference exposure levels." says Maddalena.

The study is the first to provide a detailed analysis of environmental contaminants and exposures for children in early childhood education facilities (ECE). ECE facilities include home-based childcare providers, private for-profit or non-profit preschools, and programs run by government agencies and religious institutions.

The study was funded by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which provides guidance on its website about how childcare centers can reduce the concentration of these chemicals in the air. One of CARB's responsibilities is to regulate the emissions of indoor air pollutants in California.

Volatile Organic Compounds in the Air

The researchers measured more than 40 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air of these facilities, although, they say, "most concentrations were usually below levels of concern." Common sources of VOCs are cleaners and personal care products.

However, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, chloroform, and benzene, or ethylbenzene exceeded child-specific Safe Harbor Levels. Formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are known respiratory irritants and carcinogens.

It is important to better understand the impact of these concentrations. According to the report, "because children exhibit exploratory behaviors that place them in direct contact with contaminated surfaces, they are likely to be exposed to any contaminants present. Children have higher exposures because they breathe more air, eat more food, and drink more water per unit of body weight compared to adults. They are also less developed immunologically, physiologically, and neurologically and therefore may be more susceptible to the adverse effects of chemicals and toxins."

Formaldehyde concentrations in the air exceeded reference exposure levels in 35 of the facilities. It is typically emitted from furniture containing composite wood products like plywood, fiberboard, or particle board, but it can be emitted from other indoor sources including carpets and carpet pads; paints and coatings; permanent press clothing, furniture fabrics, and draperies; personal care products; and indoor combustion sources such as gas ranges and fireplaces.

"More research needs to be conducted on the understanding the health risks posed by indoor environmental contaminants in these facilities," says Maddalena. "We also need to identify better strategies to reduce indoor sources of these chemicals."

Some of CARB's recommended strategies for reducing formaldehyde in the air include:

  • Purchase products containing little or no formaldehyde.
  • Use ventilation systems and open windows.
  • Clean frequently to minimize dust, using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter or a wet mop for hard surface floors.
  • Clean out cabinets and garages to eliminate older pesticides, solvents and cleaning products that may leak, in order to help reduce indoor levels of pesticides and harmful chemicals.
  • Assure adequate ventilation to bring in outdoor air.

The study's authors are Asa Bradman, Fraser Gaspar, Rosemary Castorina, Elodie Tong-Lin, Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health, University of California - Berkeley, Thomas McKone, School of Public Health and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Randy Maddalena, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Allan Chen