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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 4, January/February 2008

Teaching kids about the toxins around them

By Claudia Ferris

Stories about toxins in toys, water bottles, and cosmetics are increasingly being covered by the news media in Canada. Teachers, students, and parents looking for science-based, practical information about how to reduce their exposure to toxins in the environment have a variety of new resources to access. You can download and print the latest toxin-free school materials created by the Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS) from our website at www.leas.ca.

These new school materials and interactive workshops explain why low-dose exposure to toxins harm the health of humans and the environment. There are more than 85,000 synthetic chemicals registered for use in North America and the average citizen carries a body burden of 100 toxic chemicals. These learning resources look at this chemical trespass, while educating communities about how to protect themselves from it.

Students learn about the workplace health and safety rights that labour organizations have successfully fought for, comparing them to the lack of rights that consumers have in dealing with toxic substances. Lesson plans and worksheets encourage students to speak up for their rights, with a sample students’ environmental bill of rights and a practical planner for how to organize presentations effectively.

The Ecosystem Earth component includes games and information about the interconnections within an ecosystem and how introduced chemicals can migrate and bio-accumulate. The concept of the precautionary principle, or hazard-based policy management, is illustrated through a number of exercises, including one based on BC fish farms.

The standard, industry-preferred, risk-management policy is explored through examples of how toxic chemicals used in products can be determined to be safe because, although some studies show they cause developmental and other adverse health effects in animal studies, human health risk has not been fully determined. With risk-based management policies, the onus is on the consumer to prove that there is a negative health impact, instead of ensuring that the manufacturer is only using proven safe ingredients.

We look at the link between carcinogens from cigarettes and cancer, and how risk-based management deemed this product to be safe until it was conclusively proven otherwise. Students will also learn about endocrine disrupting chemicals, reproductive toxins, and neurotoxins in products commonly used in the community. A review of material safety data sheets shows how workers can protect themselves from these toxic chemicals, and how we extend this knowledge to protect ourselves from these chemicals in the home and in personal-care products. Useful web-based research resources, such as Scorecard, WHIMIS, and Canadian Environmental Protection Agency (CEPA), are provided.

A school toxin checklist takes students and teachers through what chemicals they may be exposed to in the playground and in cleaning products and pesticides used in some schools. In older buildings, exposure to asbestos and lead in water pipes may be an issue. Chemicals used in science labs, shops, and art classes are identified, and we explain how to follow the MSDS sheets in order to handle any toxic chemicals safely, and how to substitute them where possible. This checklist takes learners through the more common problem areas, sharing what schools around the province have found and what can be done to reduce the health risk from these environmental exposures.

The key learning outcomes of these materials are matched to secondary school curricula from Grades 8 through 12 including; Science 8 (Applications of Science), Science 9 (Biology & Life Science), and Personal Development 9 through 12 (Healthy Living). For Socials 8 through 11, the materials assist students to research, define, and present an issue or problem, and work collaboratively to implement a course of action that addresses a problem.

Using current environmental issues to frame problems and solutions can engage students in active global citizenship. If students wish to apply this experience by volunteering in the community or developing a personal portfolio, they can make use of our Chemical Trespass Action Kit. Practical Information about endocrine disrupting chemicals called phthalates, found in plastics, water bottles, and many cosmetics, can help students make sure they are not unknowingly adding to their own body burden of toxic chemicals.

It wouldn’t have been possible for LEAS to put together these materials and information without the direct sponsorship of foundations, and environmental and labour organizations. LEAS would like to thank the members, staff, and Executive of the BC Teachers’ Federation for its ongoing support for our research and publications. We have just published a 3.0 version of our popular CancerSmart Consumer Guide, which can be ordered from our website for those who want to know what’s in the products they use around the home. Our research is not funded by industry or manufacturers, so we rely entirely on sales of our guide, individual donors, and support from progressive organizations like the BCTF. Together, we are making a difference—at home, in the media, and in our schools.

Claudia Ferris, communications, Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS).

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