How to protect your kids from environmental risks

Advice from Dr. Irena Buka with the Children’s Environmental Health Clinic (ChEHC) at the Misericordia Hospital. Her team’s expertise is world renowned. The clinic is a World Health Organization (WHO) collaborating centre.

Children may be more vulnerable to environmental exposures than adults for two main reasons:

  • Their bodies are still developing.
  • Their behaviour can expose them more to chemicals and organisms.

Irena feels knowing the risks can provide parents with an opportunity to take precautions.

Environmental risks - tips on how to protect your children - home risks

Carbon monoxide – ChEHC at the Misercordia Hospital treats long-term survivors, and Irena says small frequent doses can be neurotoxic. They can impair children’s development and impair memory and quality of life for adults.


  • Purchase a carbon monoxide detector for your home and check it annually.
  • Do proper maintenance of gas appliances such as furnaces, fireplaces and stoves. A slow leak from a poorly maintained appliance can be dangerous.
  • Always start your vehicle with the garage door open and back it out immediately.
  • Don’t start your lawnmower in a closed garage.
  • Never sit or sleep in rooms with unvented gas or kerosene space heaters.

Irena says carbon monoxide can get from an attached garage to an upstairs bedroom and linger there for a long time.

Renovations – Canadians do a lot of home renovations, and renovations generate a lot of dust, which can trigger respiratory issues. When dust particles get into our lungs, the very small ones can be absorbed into our body. Irena says the paints and glues we use may contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be carcinogenic. Mould can also be uncovered, which is a concern.


  • Do renovations during a time of year when you can ensure proper ventilation.
  • Look for products that are low in VOCs.
  • If you find mould, contact a professional to safely deal with it.

Household dust – Dust exposure in the home is a trigger for respiratory symptoms, especially asthma. Irena explains that household dust has been shown to contain all sorts of chemicals that also may be harmful to children. Our furniture, carpets and textiles are sprayed for stain and fire resistance. These materials contain organobromine compounds, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, which Irena says researchers are now discovering in human breast milk, the top of the human food chain.


  • Stay on top of the dust in your home.
  • Trap dust, don’t disperse it. It is recommended you use a damp cloth with water instead of spray chemicals.
  • You can also pick up the dust with a vacuum.
Environmental risks - tips on how to protect your children- outdoor banner

The Health Canada Air Quality Health Index reports on cities across Canada and rates air quality on a scale of 1 to 10. When the Fort McMurray fires were raging, it was 13 to 14 most days within the city. You will hear the media reference the index on days the rating is extreme. They mention the groups at highest risk, which include young, active children. Irena has been working with the Edmonton Soccer Association to help the organization use the index to determine when to cancel games or take certain children out when the rating is high.

Irena says we all should be using the tool. Children need regular and frequent exercise, so consider indoor playgrounds and gyms when outdoor air quality is poorer.


Environmental risks - tips on how to protect your children - food risks

Fish consumption –Fish is an important nutrient for children but it attracts pollutants such as mercury, which is toxic to human health, posing a particular threat to the development of the child in utero and early in life.

The pollutants sit under the skin of the fish and are higher in larger fish.


  • Focus on smaller fish for children and women of child-bearing age.
  • Avoid larger predatory fish (e.g. Chilean sea bass, grouper, swordfish and some types of tuna).

Irena says it is very important to not stop eating fish altogether because some nutrients key to brain development are only found in fish.

Pesticides – It is important to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, but choosing carefully is important.


  • Stay away from foods transported long distances; those foods will have more preservatives to keep them fresh longer.
  • Try to buy locally grown produce from farmers who avoid pesticides.
  • Know which foods don’t need to be organic because the skin can removed or there aren’t a lot of pesticides used in their production.

Food colouring – Irena says studies have shown that eliminating food colouring from the diet of some children has made a small difference in their behaviour. Based on that research, she does not believe it is reasonable for parents to try to remove all dyes from their child’s diet. But she does feel strongly that parents should avoid the obvious.


  • Don’t give your children what they don’t need. Stay away from the green lollipop or pink Popsicle, because the health effects are still unknown.

To receive care from Irena and her colleagues at the Children’s Environmental Health Clinic (ChEHC) at the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton, you must receive a referral from your family physician.

Contribute to The Vital Beat

Have a story to share about health care? An idea for an article? We value all contributions.

Submit an idea