Nursery au naturel
While launching a remodeling project before your baby’s arrival may seem like a good idea, it requires a lot of different building materials—glues, paints and chemical solvents. “Suddenly your house turns into a construction site with contamination levels that can be problematic,” says Ted Schettler, M.D., M.P.H., science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. Here are some precautions you can take:
Take a primer on paint. “Oil-based paints pose a theoretical risk of exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) while the paint is drying,” says Robert Geller, M.D., medical toxicologist and associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Latex paint has very low toxicity but poses a slight risk if used extensively in a poorly ventilated area. If you’re doing the painting, open the windows or run a fan and take frequent breaks; if you are using oil-based paint, wear a protective mask specifically recommended by the manufacturer to protect against paint fumes. If you’re doing extensive painting, use a nontoxic, non-VOC- or low-VOC-containing paint, or ask someone else to paint the nursery for you and stay out of the house while the paint dries and the fumes dissipate.
Most major paint manufacturers offer low- or non-VOC water-based paints. Some companies manufacture milk paints, made from the milk protein casein, lime and naturally occurring mineral pigments (two to try: The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co. and The Real Milk Paint Co.). The American Pregnancy Association recommends artists choose water colors, acrylic and tempera paints over oil paints, and avoid latex paints that contain solvents such as ethylene glycol, ethers and biocides.
If your home was built before 1978, the walls may still contain lead-based paint. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends contacting a certified lead abatement contractor before removing old paint, or someone in your household can test for lead dust using a test kit ($30, available from the National Safety Council, www.nsc.org/issues/ lead). If you’re pregnant, leave the house while someone else does the peeling, stripping and painting, and don’t return until the room has been well ventilated.
Get naturally floored. New carpet can emit harmful chemicals from carpet fibers, backing material and adhesives, dyes and fire retardants. If you’re buying new carpeting, ask the installer to air out the rolls for 24 hours before installation. Open the windows for ventilation and, if possible, stay out of the room until the air clears (48 to 72 hours after installation). Look for carpets that carry the new Green Label Plus logo, which identifies products with low VOC emissions. Consider all-natural wool, jute or sisal carpeting, or a natural linoleum, tile, hardwood or cork floor.
Be choosy about furniture. Family heirlooms, such as antique rocking chairs or cribs, won’t meet current safety standards if they were finished with lead-based paint. However, furniture designed especially for babies after the 1970s shouldn’t pose a toxic hazard even if a child chews on it, Geller says. Newly installed unfinished plywood or particleboard can produce formaldehyde vapors, so cover the exposed wood with a low- or non-VOC finish or sealer such as AFM Naturals Oil Wax Finish or Safecoat DuroStain.
Create a no-PBDE (polybrominated diphenylethers) zone. Several new animal studies suggest that a common flame retardant (deca-PBDE) used in carpets and upholstery can impair a baby’s developing central nervous system and brain. PBDEs can cross the placenta, transfer through breast milk and get absorbed from the gases that vaporize from household products. The effects depend on the amount of exposure over time.
To lessen the toxic load, consider buying an organic baby mattress and bedding. Many companies now sell beautiful organic products that are free of formaldehyde, dioxins, fire retardants, pesticides and synthetic petrochemicals (see “Green Resources”). Each potential toxin you eliminate is a baby step toward better health.