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Children in child care and child care providers have many opportunities for exposure to toxic chemicals and substances. Cleaning products, pesticides, arts and crafts supplies, common household products, and even household plants can be hazardous. You can be exposed to toxic substances by breathing them in (inhaling), swallowing (ingesting) them, or getting them in your eyes or on your skin.


One type of exposure is through breathing in toxic fumes. Breathing toxic substances can damage the respiratory system. Once in the lungs, toxins can then be absorbed into the bloodstream. From the bloodstream, toxins may be deposited in the organs, where they can cause damage. Reactions to breathing toxins occur within a few hours or days. Immediate reactions include throat irritation, nasal congestion or cough, or more serious reactions. Delayed reactions may involve other parts of the body, and include nausea, dizziness, headache, flu-like symptoms, and eye irritations. Serious reaction can include nerve damage and choking.

One of the most common ways in which children are exposed to toxic substances is by drinking or swallowing them (ingestion), because they often put materials in their mouths. These materials may contain toxins, such as lead in paint or poison in plants. Providers are most likely to be exposed to toxins when they ingest contaminated liquids they have mistaken for water or juice.

Exposure through the skin is usually caused by improperly handling chemicals. Chemical exposure to skin can cause skin irritations, burns, and allergic reactions. Chemicals can also enter the bloodstream through cuts or sores. Some chemicals can penetrate the skin's natural protective coatings and enter the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, toxic chemicals can damage vital organs. To prevent toxic poisoning:

  • Post emergency and poison control numbers in a visible place. (A list of regional poison control centers is included as Appendix 2.)
  • Know first aid. (See the first aid chart in the Emergency Illness or Injury section.)
  • Read chemical labels. Know the hazards.
  • Choose the least hazardous product that can do the job.
  • Choose multi-use products to cut down on the number of different chemicals you need to use and store.
  • Use the smallest quantity required to do the job.
  • Use the form of the chemical that most reduces risk of exposure, that is, use a cream instead of a liquid.
  • Wear protective clothing, gloves, and safety glasses when using chemicals.
  • Only use chemicals in well-ventilated areas.
  • Never mix chemicals.
  • Make sure labels remain attached to containers; don't pour chemicals into another container.
  • Store chemicals in locked cabinets out of the reach of children.
  • Know the hazards of common household products and how to safely handle them. (See chart below.)
  • Keep household plants out of the reach of children.
  • Use only lawn chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency lists as "nonrestricted use."
  • Use only arts and crafts materials that are nontoxic.

Hazards of Common Cleaning Products

Product Can Cause Hazard
Baking Soda Eye irritation, redness, pain Reacts with acids, such as vinegar.
Vinegar Eye irritation, mild skin irritation Reacts with bases (such as baking soda) and oxidizers (substances that easily give off oxygen such as chlorine); corrodes metals.
Ammonia (10%) Severe eye irritation, swelling, burns, and possible blindness; corrosive skin burns and pain; nose and throat irritation, coughing, and chest pain if inhaled; burning pain to mouth, throat and stomach, vomiting, and shock if swallowed, and, if ammonia enters lungs, possible fatal fluid accumulation (only 1 oz. could be fatal if swallowed). Never mix with bleach. Reacts violently with acids and other chemicals; corrodes metals.
Chlorine Bleach Eye burns, blurred vision; skin redness, pain, drying, and cracking; sore throat, coughing, and labored breathing if inhaled; sore throat, vomiting, and burns if swallowed. Reacts with acid or heat; produces chlorine gas; corrodes metals.
Note: This information is not intended to take the place of your state's or locality's child care regulations and laws. In every case, the laws and regulations of the city, county, and state in which the child care facility is located must be carefully followed even if they differ from these recommendations.

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