Indoor VOC Exposures in Early Childhood Education Facilities

The first-ever study investigating volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in 40 early childhood education facilities found that four of the VOCs present – benzene, chloroform, ethylbenzene, and naphthalene – exceeded age adjusted “safe harbor levels” based on California’s Proposition 65 guidelines,  the state’s list of chemicals that are known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.

The study, published in Indoor Air, was co-authored by COEH affiliate Asa Bradman, associate director, Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health (CERCH) and adjunct professor of Environmental Health Sciences at UC Berkeley, targeted an initial list of 40 cancer causing VOCs. But the monitors placed in the childcare centers recorded peak exposures of an additional 119 non targeted VOCs, many with no established health benchmarks. Among these, researchers identified the presence of an additional four compounds that are known hazards, including camphor, a terpene used in some fragrances and pesticide formulations.

“It underscores the adage that we're often exposed to many different chemicals in complex mixtures,” said Bradman. “When we measure something, we may only find what we measure, but there could be a lot more out there.”

“Some of these other compounds are also irritants. For example, chloroform is related to bleach, and bleach compounds are respiratory irritants. When we talk about cancer, we're looking at long-term effects, but there may be shorter term impacts such as increased asthma or cough symptoms,” said Bradman.

The study by lead authors Tina Hoang and Rosemary Castorina – members of the CERCH research team and Berkeley graduates – reported that VOCs found in cleaning and personal care products had the highest indoor concentrations. “One thing we noticed is a lot more cleaning and sanitizing goes on in childcare compared with other school environments,” noted Bradman.

Compared to adults, children are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of environmental contaminants, say study authors. “In general, kids breathe more air per unit of body weight, so they're getting more of these substances into their bodies per kilogram than an adult,” explained Bradman.

“Overall, childcare facilities were not so different than other indoor environments where children spend time. However, levels of some cleaning and sanitizing agents were higher,” said Bradman.

The authors recommend more research to identify the sources of these chemicals and quantify the health risks of the cancer-causing VOCs identified in the childcare facilities. This is especially important because many children spend a majority of their waking hours in child care. In the future, Bradman and his team would like to conduct intervention studies with a goal to improve air quality in children’s indoor environments and reduce potential health risks.

In addition to Bradman, Hoang, and Castorina, co-authors included COEH affiliate Thomas McKone from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the Berkeley Lawrence National Laboratory and Randy Maddalena, also from the Berkeley Lawrence National Laboratory. The study was funded by the California Air Resource Board.

Continue reading related research by COEH faculty William Nazaroff in Classroom VOC Contaminants.

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