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Couches, toxins and development: How environmental health at home can affect children

Molly Kile, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, questions the safety of a room the minute she walks in, such as pointing out a flame retardant couch.  

This is one of the many examples she used in an episode of Oregon State University’s Public Health Insider, which focused on potential home hazards and how they could influence a child’s development and ability to learn.  

Molly was joined by Shannon Lipscomb, human development and family sciences associate professor at OSU–Cascades, and Megan McClelland, endowed director of the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families. The three researchers are collaborating on a study to determine childrens’ school readiness in relation to how flame retardants impact brain development. 

Molly, whose research is rooted in studying the effects of contaminants in Bangladesh’s groundwater, says that while the home environment in the United States is more modern, traditional environmental hazards are still present.  

“I see a fireplace that could be contributing to indoor air quality, and I wonder about the quality of the drinking water that is coming into the home,” Molly says. “What I also see are new hazards, and we don’t really know if they are harmful or not yet, but we do know that everyone is exposed to them.”  

Shannon, who researches childhood adversity and resiliency, focuses on toxins that are influenced by social environments such as discrimination, poverty, mental illness, divorce and abuse that create a higher risk for future health issues.  

“We can think about this as toxins in a few different ways,” Shannon says. “They get in under our skin like the toxins that Molly talks about. They affect our stress response systems, immune systems and our brain development.”  

Megan’s research zeroes in on the child as an individual, looking at how their brain develops cognitive and foundational skills in early years and how environmental and social toxins play a role.    

The three panelists answered questions on the proper use of bleach, the effects of hand sanitizer for children and what changes each of them has implemented into their home to combat environmental hazards.  

“The minute that Molly said our couches were full of flame retardants, not only did I sort of freak out and worry about my kids, I turned to my husband and said, ‘Well obviously we need new couches,’” Megan joked.  

Learn more about their study on flame retardants and school readiness on the college’s website. Watch the full episode in this story or on the college’s YouTube channel, where you can also catch up on previous episodes of the Public Health Insider. 

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