When Marianne Schnall was pregnant with her daughter, Jazmin, she was overcome with the “nesting instinct”—that parental urge to prepare a safe haven for a new arrival. As founders of Ecomall.com, a four-year-old website for the Internet-savvy eco-shopper, Marianne and her husband Tom Kay know that babies are particularly vulnerable to environmental toxins. They realize that today’s children face environmental health threats not encountered by earlier generations, such as rising rates of asthma and childhood cancers, as well as the hazards of hormone-disrupting chemicals like dioxin, PCBs, and DDT. Concerned for their baby’s welfare, Schnall and Kay kept safety and health in mind when they decorated Jazmin’s first environment. “We wanted to make her environment as clean and pure as possible,” Schnall says.
Tots Need Super-Safe Surroundings
The couple have real reason for concern. In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that infants and children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental toxins. “Children are not little adults,” says Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.
First, babies are born with incompletely developed immune, reproductive, and central nervous systems, and their kidneys and livers can’t effectively eliminate toxins from the body. Both in the womb and after birth, a baby undergoes rapid development. Chemical exposures that would never harm an adult can wreak havoc, even irreversible damage, on a baby during this critical phase of life. Low-level exposures to lead, for example, can impact a child’s ability to concentrate, according to Herbert Needleman, M.D., a leading researcher on the effects of lead exposure on children. And higher levels of exposure to lead can translate to antisocial behavior, aggression, learning disabilities, impaired hearing, and lowered I.Q. In either case, lead exposure may interfere with a child’s success in school and, later, on the job and in the community.
Second, children experience a proportionately higher exposure to environmental toxins than adults. Pound-for-pound, children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food. Thus, along with the essentials, children take in a greater dose of the pollutants that taint them.
Then there’s children’s behavior. Their curiosity leads them to finger, snatch, and mouth almost everything they come in contact with. This is a normal part of their development, and some doctors argue that children’s immune systems need some exposure to dirt and bacteria to develop fully. However, pollutants such as dust and heavier-than-air chemicals tend to collect where children love to play most—on the floor and in the grass.
Finally, children’s early exposure to chemicals may lead to cumulative effects that result in cancer, reproductive disorders, and neurological problems down the road and, perhaps, in the next generation.
Eco-Wise Wall Design
Ideally, the four walls of the nursery nest are soothing and safe. Beyond decorating decisions, walls are lead- and fume-free. Any house or apartment built before 1978, when the federal government limited lead in interior paints to a negligible level, may conceal a layer or more of leaded paint underneath safer coats. If the paint is intact—not crumbling, chipping or peeling—it’s not harmful.
Nonetheless, two areas to test for lead are windowsills and doorjambs, where friction grinds lead paint into easily inhaled, mobile dust. Lead Check™ swabs, available in hardware stores, identify high lead content in dust, paint, and dishes. An EPA- certified laboratory can more accurately test lead at minute levels and through layers of paint. If lead is found in the nursery, it must be removed or encapsulated by a professional.
Most of today’s paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, ammonia, and glycols. VOCs vaporize from paint and other products, especially those made of petrochemicals, and enter the air we breathe. Fungicides and preservatives, or biocides, also are added to prevent paints from deteriorating. All these chemicals add up to strong odors and possible ill health, including fatigue, headache, and breathing difficulties. Oil-based paints are the worst offenders, but water-based latex paints also are made with petrochemical solvents that can contaminate the air you breathe.
The safest bet: No-biocide, low-VOC, and no-VOC paints formulated to emit few or no chemical fumes. (For a list of safe paint sources, see Natural Home’s July/August 1999 issue, page 51.) Some natural paints contain aromatic solvents from citrus or pine that may induce reactions in sensitive people. In any case, paint a baby’s room with windows wide open, well in advance of the baby’s due date. Pregnant women should never paint or be in freshly painted spaces.
Prospective parents also can select environmentally sound wallcoverings for the nursery. Most wallcoverings are made of vinyl, which may contain harmful plasticizers, or chemically dyed fabrics treated with fungicides, stain resistant chemicals, and flame retardants. Instead, choose natural or recycled fiber and low-pollutant papers, and hang them with low-VOC glues.
Floor Covering Facts
Most parents are inclined to spread plush, wall-to-wall carpeting in the baby’s room to cushion tumbles and falls. But this is not the ideal floor covering. Dust mites and animal dander that trigger asthma attacks and exacerbate allergies cling to fibers, while pesticides and household cleaners are deposited by air currents and shoes. In humid climates, carpeting may harbor mold and mildew. What’s more, synthetic carpeting, backing, and pads contain so many chemicals they are often referred to as a “toxic soup” that can cause headaches, fatigue, and breathing difficulties.
On the other hand, carpeting and rugs add color and character, texture and warmth to a room. Floor coverings made from hemp fibers, which naturally resist mold, are a good choice for damp climes. Wool fibers may have been treated with toxic mothproofing chemicals. But vegetable-dyed, natural-fiber throw rugs are ideal because they can be washed frequently to combat dust and other contaminants. Best of all for baby’s room are untreated carpeting rugs with natural latex or jute backings.
If you choose not to cover floors with carpeting or rugs, a variety of alternatives exist. The safest and most environmentally sound types of flooring are untreated hardwoods—preferably recycled—true linoleum, ceramic tile, marble, stone slate, and resilient cork tiles—all either unfinished or finished with water-based, low-VOC finishes.
Creating a natural nursery may be the first foray into eco-design for a family, and while the impetus may come from a concern for health, the benefits are broad.
Safe and Stylish Eco-Furnishings
When it comes to nursery furnishings, the crib is the place where baby spends the most time, especially during those sleep- filled early months. As such, the crib anchors the decor. Other pieces of baby furniture include a changing table, dresser, shelves, and, perhaps, a rocking chair. By far the best material for these is hardwood—preferably sustainably harvested wood finished with natural stains or a low-VOC sealant.
Be aware that some case goods or their parts contain particleboard, plywood, and other engineered woods made with glues that release formaldehyde. If you do purchase engineered-wood furniture, do so several months before your baby’s arrival so VOCs will dissipate.
A typical crib mattress is stuffed with polyurethane foam and treated with flame retardants and water repellents. In its place choose an organic cotton crib mattress that contains no synthetic materials, or one with a layer of naturally fire- and water-resistant Pure Grow™ wool—sheared from sustainably raised sheep—surrounding a core of 100-percent certified organic cotton stuffing.
Used or antique furniture represents a practical and environmentally sound reuse of resources. Be careful though: Furniture made prior to 1978 may be finished with lead paint, while older pieces may be too unstable to withstand a curious toddler. You may need to repair or refinish antiques.
Blinds, shades, and curtains offer relief from the afternoon sun to a napping baby and privacy to a nursing mother. As with carpeting, dust mites tend to cling to window fabric. Frequent washing in hot water will keep mites at bay, and durable fabric like hemp will withstand the wear and tear of laundering. However, it’s best to avoid window curtains in the nursery, although a small valance is a safe and fun window decoration.
When it comes to blinds, those made of metal, wood, or bamboo are easy to keep clean. Since it may be unclear what type of finishes have been applied to new blinds, open them up and set them out in a ventilated room for a few weeks to permit chemicals to “offgas,” or emit harmful chemicals in the atmosphere. In 1996, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found that imported vinyl mini-blinds contain lead. The U.S. window-covering industry voluntarily replaced lead with a different stabilizer, but CPSC does not require pre-market testing of vinyl blinds, so there are no guarantees.
Creating a natural nursery may be the first foray into eco-design for a family, and while the impetus may come from a concern for health, the benefits are broad. “It becomes a lifestyle choice,” says Schnall. “It’s part of teaching Jazmin the value of protecting our resources. I want her to make the right choices when she grows up, choices that will help create a sustainable future.”