It's back-to-school time, which means any number of things, from excitement, to fits of frenzied shopping to locker anxiety. Of course, at The Daily Green, we're most concerned about creating a healthy environment that is free of toxic substances that might inhibit learning. That's why we're working with Deirdre Imus, author and founder of the Deirdre Imus Center for Pediatric Oncology, and promoter of the "Greening the Cleaning" program. She compiled tips for keeping your child safe and healthy at school -- including these ideas that might have escaped the other back-to-school tips sheets you've seen.
It's a new virus, so there's no telling how bad it will be this fall and winter, but so far H1N1 -- the swine flu -- has proven to be a virulent, but not altogether debilitating strain of the flu. It's important to remember that swine flu is just an influenza virus, similar to the one that circulates every winter. "The same basic rules apply to stop the spread of infection," Imus writes. "Stay home if you think you are sick, wash your hands frequently (use a healthy hand sanitizer when soap and water are unavailable), and cover your coughs and sneezes." By "healthy hand sanitizers," Imus means those that use essential oils, rather than synthetic pesticides, to fight bacteria; antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers often contribute to the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria and other environmental problems, and are blamed for thousands of poisonings every year.
We all appreciate the importance of classroom time in a student's education: It's hard to learn Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic without a teacher, a blackboard and desk full of pens and paper. But research increasingly suggests that recess is also a key ingredient to a successful school day. A 15-minute break seems to be key not only for learning, but social development -- and, of course, health -- in elementary school children. For all children, unstructured play -- off the soccer field, that is -- is as important as structured sports, helping with emotional, social and cognitive development. "For optimal health and well-being," Imus says, "make sure your child's school day includes recess." And if your child isn't getting all he or she needs at school, see 30 ways to get your kid to play outside from the National Wildlife Federation.
Many parents see cell phones as an important tool for staying in touch with their children, and maintaining contact in case of an emergency. (Many students, meanwhile, see cell phones as a status symbol and an essential tool for gossiping with friends.) What may surprise many parents is that there is still a lot of debate about the safety of cell phone radiation, and its effect on growing brains; some research suggests a link to nerve damage or even cancer. "As much remains unknown, use the Precautionary Principle when deciding upon cell phone and electronics use with your children," Imus recommends. "Kids' developing bodies, and especially developing brains, are particularly vulnerable to environmental insults. As with any healthcare issue, consult your doctor with any questions you may have, and become your own health advocate by bringing him or her information you find so that you can discuss it and make informed decisions for you and your family."
Head lice may not be pleasant, but they're a fact of life for many school children. But the most common over-the-counter and prescription treatments for head lice contain pesticides. The over-use of pesticides can lead to the evolution of drug-resistant bugs, and the toxic chemicals have the potential to trigger serious health problems in some children. But these chemicals have only been in use for a few decades. Old-school alternative head lice treatments include olive oil, essential oil blends and even mayonnaise. (See more surprising uses for olive oil.) "Pesticide-based treatments are coming under increasing scrutiny, as superbugs and pesticide resistance grows," Imus writes, adding: "There is increasing need for effective and safe pesticide-free treatments."
Six out of 10 children will experience back pain before their 18th birthday, and backpacks are one big reason why. If buying a new backpack, choose one with wide, padded shoulders and a padded back, and whether your children are using new or old bags, help them pack wisely, with the heavier items close to the center of the back. No backpack should weigh more than 10% to 20% of a child's body weight -- no more than 14 pounds for a 70-pound boy or girl. "Try weighing a full backpack on a bathroom scale to get an idea of how much your child is really carrying," Imus says, "and then get creative about lessening the load, whether its leaving unnecessary items in a locker or carrying a heavy item by hand."
Lunchtime at many schools is a time to gorge on high fat fast food, sugary soda and sweet desserts. That won't help with the three R's back in the classroom, nor will it keep your child healthy for a lifetime. Here are two of Imus's key recommendations for a healthy lunch:
1. Buy organic foods and pack them in nontoxic containers whenever possible to eliminate pesticide residue and the leaching of harmful chemicals into foods. When buying a new water bottle, choose a reusable aluminum bottle, or at least one that is marked BPA-free (Bisphenol A is a synthetic estrogen used to make some plastics, and it's been linked to a number of health problems, including obesity).
2. Pack a lunch with a healthy sandwich or wrap, a drink that isn't overloaded with extra sugars, a fruit or vegetable and a light dessert, like applesauce or yogurt raisins.
Vaccination is important for public health, and is responsible for the eradication or near-eradication of several debilitating childhood illnesses. But many parents worry about side effects. Here are six steps to take to ensure you're vaccinations are safe:
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