Research study looks at air quality and child health

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COLUMBIA - Parents are on the hunt for school supplies, but researchers are finding not all school supplies are safe. 

A group of researchers from the University of Missouri are working to determine how harmful volatile organic compounds impact children's health.

The study showed researchers can assess what toxic chemicals are present in the air of preschool classrooms. Other research shows children are among the most vulnerable to certain air pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds.

Volatile organic compounds are chemicals that could be released in the air by everyday items like school supplies, toys, cleaning supplies and air fresheners. 

Animal research suggests overexposure to such chemicals are linked to cancer, behavioral problems and birth defects. 

Gustavo Carlo, a human development and family science professor; Chung-Ho Lin, a research associate professor of forestry; Jane McElroy, an associate professor of family and community medicine; Susan Nagel, an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health; and Francisco Palermo, an assistant professor of human development and family science, are working together on the project.   

Researchers measured the air quality in five different child care centers in Kansas City, using special technology, and found at least 45 different toxic compounds.

Lin created the technology. He said it is portable, cost efficient and easy to use. It can identify and quantify hundreds of compounds.

He is hoping government agencies will take the group's findings and create a set of guidelines with recommendations. 

"Because for kids, they tend to inhale 60 times more air per body weight compared to adults," Lin said. "They are more vulnerable because their immune system is not very well developed yet. That's why we think they are the group we need to protect."

Lin said the next approach would be to look at how to fix the problem. 

"The problem might be easily solved by having an air filter system or simply we just improve the ventilation," Lin said. 

Carlo said, "We actually don't know how bad this is."

With research mainly on animals, he said, it's hard to tell right now. 

"We know more from studies with animals about the negative consequences of exposure, but research with humans and especially with children is very rare," Carlo said. 

He also said parents can minimize exposure at home by buying an air filter and non-chemical school supplies. Although alternative products can be pricey, Carlo said it's better to be safe than sorry. 

"Why risk it if you don't have to? If you have the resources then why not spend the extra money," he said. 

The researchers are currently working on a grant proposal to pursuit a larger project. They want to collect data from children and analyze exactly what chemicals are in the  children. They are hoping to link that data to the children's learning and health outcomes over time.