Reducing Neurotoxic Exposure in Children in San Francisco, CA

The mats are waterproof, stackable, easy to clean and easy to store. The material is strong and comfortable. Also they are free of PVC, chlorinated TRIS, fire retardants, and the children appear to sleep well on them. – Yi Hong Mai, child care provider

The Mayors Innovation Project, partnered with Healthy Babies Bright Futures, provided grants to cities across the country to work towards better health outcomes for children. We are excited to share the story of one of our grant recipients, San Francisco, CA.

Since the 1970s, flame retardant chemicals have been incorporated into furniture, carpet padding, insulation, electronics, children’s products and more. While they do little to slow or prevent fire, they do leach out into house dust, creating a major exposure route for babies and young children who spend lots of time playing on the ground and putting their hands in their mouths. These chemicals are strongly linked to brain development disruption, cancer, low IQ, and endocrine disruption. Studies have indicated that people of color and those living in low-income households carry a higher body burden of flame retardants. Addressing systemic health inequities means addressing these environmental harms at the start of life for our communities’ most vulnerable.

But what can cities do about this?

By Pauli Ojea, Senior Coordinator, Commercial Toxics Reduction at the San Francisco Department of the Environment

In 2019, San Francisco became the first US city to ban flame retardants, following in the state of California’s footsteps. While this was a big step, products sold before these bans often still contain flame retardant chemicals. In response to this, the City has taken a more hands-on approach to reducing exposure in child care centers and family homes that serve San Francisco’s most vulnerable children.

“We all know how important those years from 0-5 are for a child’s brain development,” said Debbie Raphael, Director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. “It’s critical we do what we can to eliminate harmful exposure to chemicals like lead and flame retardants from our everyday lives, especially for our families. This project is empowering child care providers to create a healthier environment so that every child in their care can thrive.”

The San Francisco Department of the Environment, in partnership with the Department of Public Health and local child care organizations, Wu Yee Children’s Services and Children’s Council, is leading a project to replace flame retardant-containing nap mats with mats free of these chemicals for child care providers serving low-income households. With funding from the Healthy Babies Initiative and the California Environmental Protection Agency, over 160 child care providers have received training and over 700 nap mats have been replaced to date.

In addition to new mats, the City’s focus has been on providing trainings to child care providers. During this challenging year, five online trainings have been conducted, including trainings in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin. In addition to discussing the harms caused by flame retardants, they also cover lead prevention, because it is such a powerful neurotoxin and because the majority of San Francisco’s housing stock was built before lead paint was banned in 1978. In light of the global pandemic, there was also an urgent need to show how it was possible to effectively address COVID-19 without using asthma-causing chemicals. This work builds on their ongoing training efforts – learn more about their “Bleach-Free Toolkit” here, and Safer COVID-19 cleaning products and disinfectants.

Looking ahead, the project partners plan to continue training through the Winter, with a 2021 focus on expanding the availability of information on safe cleaning and disinfecting supplies.