Summer for our family in Sydney involves a lot of time at the beach and in the pool playing with water. Teaching my children to swim, be water safe and not fear the water is always at the forefront of my mind. Given all the play opportunities there are near the sea / swimming pools / ponds etc. it is super important to me that I make sure that they not only have a fun experience, but a safe one.
It was only when I started investigating pool toys / floatation device options to buy myself, that I realised what a toxic world I was entering with learning to swim equipment, pool inflatables and baby paddling pools!
Every single inflatable toy I’ve found is made from PVC as well as lots of swimming aids – floaties, rings, kickboards, floating mats and not to mention most baby paddling pools and some life jackets!
What is PVC? Why it should be avoided
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) has been nicknamed the poison plastic. In manufacture, it releases a chemical called dioxin (used in agent orange!) which is carcinogenic and disperses into our environment so completely, that it’s in a lot of meats, dairy and fish.
When we use PVC products, we are exposed to the harmful phthalates used to soften it, and also often lead. In disposal, it leaches chemicals into the soil or if burnt, even more toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. So, it’s basically toxic throughout its whole life cycle!
To make PVC flexible and bendy (like pool inflatables) phthalates are used and can actually make up 30% of its weight. Phthalates are therefore in anything where flexible PVC is present (unless specifically stated phthalate-free.)
Phthalates are entangled within a plastic rather than bonded, so they can leach out easily when exposed to heat or solvents. Just think…an inflatable pool toy sitting out in the sun surrounded by water…really the perfect combination to get those phthalates leaching right out!
Why do we need to avoid phthalates?
Phthalates are linked to a whole gamut of negative health effects. There is such good data and strong links between phthalates and asthma now that the World Health Organisation have cited them as one of the main causes of the rising incidence of asthma in the developed world.
Studies have also linked phthalates with undescended testes, reduced sperm and testosterone in baby boys.
There are also links between phthalate exposure and endometriosis, allergies, thyroid and immune disorders, hyperactivity and type I diabetes.
These are all very good excuses to avoid phthalates…and therefore PVC given that up to 30% of its weight can be phthalates!
Knowing this, the thought of my kids with PVC inflatable swimming aids made my stomach turn and made me determined to find a safer alternative…
What Are Safer Alternative Materials?
This is what most pool noodles are made from and it is relatively non-toxic. Unfortunately, apart from pool noodles, I couldn’t find any other pool toys/floatation devices made from it.
This is one of the safer types of plastic and has not been shown to leach chemicals. Whilst pool toys and swimming aids aren’t made from this, you can find some old style hard plastic paddling pools and kickboards which are.
EVA (Ethylene vinyl acetate)
This is the ‘safe’ alternative to PVC because it is phthalate and BPA-free.
EVA can be made into a plastic that’s like rubber but very tough and elastic. It can also be made into a foam and is used in swim aids and life jackets as well as play mats and bath toys.
EVA plastic seems like it is relatively non-toxic, though there has been concern over the EVA foam.
A few years ago, there was a finding that some EVA foam children’s play mats contained formamide (a carcinogen and developmental toxin) which was added into them to make them soft. EVA mats were subsequently banned in Belgium and France. In Australia, EVA foam mats were tested and found that they didn’t expose children to high enough levels of formamide to be unsafe, unless children mouthed the foam for 20 minutes a day every day for an extended period of time. Canada also tested the mats and found them to be safe.
In summary, formamide is in some EVA foams and it’s very hard to know which ones. Most companies don’t tend to carry out routine formamide testing on their products, though some you can contact and they may be able to tell you.
Given that play mats were mainly what was in the spotlight, it is easier to find play mat manufacturers testing for formamide than other EVA products.
Formamide exposure is almost exclusively via inhalation of fumes from a new product. The formamide emissions are mainly high in the first few days and drop markedly after a week and even more so after a month.
Therefore, to reduce the chance of exposure, when you unwrap your EVA foam product, leave it in a ventilated space where your baby/child won’t go into for at least a week to de-gas.
Luckily, we are also just looking at these EVA foam products for outdoor use as opposed to indoor use like you would a play mat, so I am much less concerned about breathing in chemicals given all the fresh air that will be around! I still most definitely de-gas whatever EVA foam product I buy for at least a week in our garage anyway just to be safe… and I also wouldn’t let my baby suck on it.
EVA foam is not a completely non-toxic option, but it’s the best I have found by far in relation to being able to actually find some products available made from them. Given that I’m looking at these products BECAUSE they are needed for safety in the first place, choosing the lowest toxin option will have to do! It’s a lot safer for a child to have swimming aids than to not use them.
123 Nourish me – Hello Sunshine Natural Sunscreen
Soléo Organics – High Performance Coconut Sunscreen
EK Sunscreen – Moringa & Harakeke Sensitive / Baby Sun Protection SPF50
Little Urchin – Little Urchin Natural Clear Zinc Sunscreen, SPF 50+
Sunslayer – Natural Face & Body Moisturizer Sunscreen Cream SPF50+
Baby Paddling Pools
Kiddy / Baby paddling pools are another area which have unfortunately been completely taken over by PVC inflatables.
Luckily, there are some safe plastic moulded baby paddling pools like I had my childhood nearly 40 years ago, still around…remember those clam shell sandpits? Some are made out of safe plastic and they make a great sized paddling pool for toddlers and babies.
Some hard plastic ones are still PVC, so make sure the product tells you what type of plastic it is. Numbers 2 (LDPE), 4 (HDPE) and 5 (Polypropylene) are safe.
With safe plastics, you still don’t want it sitting in the sun, especially with water in it.
We bought my daughter one of the clam shell pools when she was little and I kept it under the balcony table in the shade and pulled it out when I wanted to use it. I also made sure the water didn’t sit in it for a long time, just to make sure no chemicals could leach.
Trying your best is good enough
Sadly, sometimes the safest options available still aren’t completely non-toxic. It’s not something to stress about or dwell on though – it’s all about balance.
It is important just to choose the safest products you can and move on with enjoying life! If we let ourselves get so caught up in the small details of anything in life, but particularly potentially harmful chemical avoidance, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and give up, which isn’t helpful at all.
Instead it is much healthier for everyone to get excited about what you can change and to not worry about what you can’t.
There are so many simple and easy things you can do to limit yours and your child’s overall exposure to harmful chemicals – just by making sure the products that you use daily and repeatedly are safe, (eg. Baby wipes, shampoo, sunscreens etc.). This reduces overall exposure to chemicals so much! If you do your best in those areas, then choosing low tox options rather than non-toxic options occasionally is absolutely fine.
The body is able to do a certain amount of detoxing itself, so as long as we don’t overload it, it is an amazing detoxing machine anyway.
Some of our favourite baby swim products
Whilst you’re enjoying the summer, if you’re at the beach, an absolute lifesaver for us cleaning sand off the children and not getting it into the car is the Sande Kids – Sand Brush.
Reusable Swim Nappies
Also, definitely check out our blog on ‘The best natural sunscreens & how to pick them.’