Three years ago, as twelve-year-old Kenny Madden’s asthma attacks grew worse, doctors warned that unless his exposure to the dust mites and mold aggravating his illness could be reduced, Kenny’s lungs would be permanently scarred. As it was, they were functioning at only 80 percent. Once scarred, there would be little chance for improvement.
The place to start, doctors told Kenny’s mother, Karen, was in the bedroom, where the average individual spends 30 to 40 percent of his or her time. Because Kenny was a typical adolescent, Karen figured the time he spent in his room was closer to 50 percent and would likely increase.
What she didn’t know was just how significantly his bedroom contributed to Kenny’s illness. Not only was his room in the basement, but he slept on a waterbed—both breeding grounds for mold. Clearly, the waterbed would have to go, and Kenny would need to move upstairs.
That was the easy part. More difficult, Karen feared, would be designing a room a teenaged boy would feel good about.
“The doctor gave me a booklet,” Karen recalls, “that said here are some things you can do to help control allergens. The room in this picture looked like a hospital room. No carpet, no curtains, no books. It looked really bleak.”
As would Kenny’s, or so Karen assumed, until she met Shelley Black, a Denver interior designer who specializes in environmental design.
In the room that would be Kenny’s new bedroom, Black pulled up the old carpet and took down the window coverings. The popcorn ceiling was plastered so it could be easily washed, and a fresh coat of paint designed to inhibit mold was applied to the walls. Instead of a wood floor, which requires cleansers and wax to maintain, Black installed Formica laminate, which can be washed with water. She had wood cornices built for the windows and hung blinds designed to allow sunlight inside.
For bedding, Black used 100 percent cotton sheets and a cotton comforter with an anti- microbial liner. She sheathed the mattress and pillows with dust-impermeable covers. Then, with the basics covered, Black turned to decor.
“Because we couldn’t have stuffed toys or even fabric on the windows, we had to do something decorative on the wall. Otherwise, the room would be too sterile,” she explains. “I had an artist come in and paint a mural of a construction site that has a lot of depth to it.”
Today, Kenny’s asthma attacks come infrequently and his lungs are functioning at full capacity. Meanwhile, Karen learned an important lesson about environmental health, one specialists say even parents of healthy children should heed. “Children are one of the most susceptible groups [to environmental illness] because their systems are not yet fully developed,” says Peggy Wolff, an environmental health counselor who also suffers from multiple chemical sensitivities. “The younger the children, the more susceptible they tend to be. The bedroom is the most important room in the house for children because they spend so many hours there. It’s also important because the liver, which is the organ designed to detoxify the system, works best while the body is at rest or asleep. It’s really important that that room be as environmentally clean as possible so the child’s liver is getting rid of whatever toxins the child has been exposed to.”
Black suggests taking a solid inventory of your children’s space. “Find out what the products that you are putting in the room are made of and ask yourself, Are these healthy? Do some research to find out how they would impact anyone’s environment. Because if a child’s immune system is constantly dealing with the environment, how is the child able to concentrate on learning? Parents need to be really in tune and not just assume that any problem in learning and behavior is a puberty problem. Maybe the problem is immune sensitivity.”
Is your child a bully? An outcast? Suddenly injury prone? Katherine Metz, a feng shui expert from Redstone, Colorado, suggests that the colors you use in a child’s bedroom can make a difference in their demeanor and outlook.
If your child is a bully, apple green, light blue, or dark green can be calming. To help develop wisdom and compassion, use a mix of white, black, and green.
If your child is often ill, use a variety of colors, especially those associated with the five elements: wood (green and blue); fire (red); earth (yellow); metal (white); water (black).
If your child is depressed, green—especially kelly green—is a wonderful color to ease the depression. If the depression is chronic, try apple green.
If your child has mood swings, use earth colors to ground the child and allow those emotions to come to rest.
To help stimulate a child's intellect, use black or white, which can enhance the ability to learn. Black is the color of wisdom and intellectual activity. White is the color of metal; it creates a container for knowledge and cuts away any distractions.
Environmental health experts generally agree on basic guidelines for creating a healthy child’s bedroom.
When you’re creating a child’s bedroom, consider where it’s located. The basement is likely to be more damp than an upper level and thus more hospitable to mold. Basements often serve as storage spaces for paints, cleansers, and other chemicals. “All have solvents in them,” says Rosalind Anderson, president of Anderson Laboratories, which tests airborne chemicals for toxicity, “and solvents are particularly bad for the brain. In a child whose brain isn’t finished developing, solvent exposure can really do damage.”
Do not use carpet. Carpet contains toxic chemicals and also traps dust and mold. And small children spend lots of time on the floor, making exposure that much more acute. Instead of carpet, use linoleum, cork, or hardwood, fastened with nails or nontoxic glue. Use washable area rugs to make hard floors more cozy. If carpet can’t be avoided, Kim Nadell, a designer with New York’s Image and Ecology, Environmentally Smart Interior Design, suggests cutting a loose piece that fits the room. “That way you can roll it up in the summer and get it cleaned,” she says. Keep in mind, too, that because woven carpets require less glue than tufted, they are likely to put out fewer toxins.
Avoid all possible sources of toxins. Toxin sources include traditional paint, permanent press fabrics, mothballs, plywood and pressboard, sealers, and glues. In their stead, use low- and no-VOC paints, nontoxic sealers and glues, and formaldehyde-free particleboard. If chemically treated fabrics are unavoidable, first put them through the washing machine several times with a cup of baking soda. Generally, anything that outgasses can be made somewhat safer by airing it outside or away from the child’s room.
Go for the old. “We’ve done a series of tests on carpet and paint, crib mattresses, waterproof mattresses, and disposable diapers. In many cases, all those things give off enough toxic chemicals to cause immediate onset of toxic effect,” says Anderson. “They will trigger asthma. Some are neurotoxic and will damage the nervous system. Then we have pulmonary irritation—problems in the lungs—and sensory irritation, problems in the head and neck. They cause skin rashes and often ear and sinus infections.” Buying used goods is an excellent alternative. “There’s some merit to reusing older pieces,” says designer Nadell, “particularly furniture and toys [with the exception of vinyl] because they will have already outgassed.” However, Nadell cautions that old items may bear mold or mildew.
Avoid plastics. Plastics are not only bad for humans, but for the planet in general, says interior designer Deborah Coburn, owner of Healthy Housing in San Rafael, California. “I think plastic is probably the worst thing you can use. It’s toxic in the outgassing; it’s toxic when it’s torn up and put in the landfill. It’s bad for everyone,” she says. Even the atoms in the air are affected by the synthetic material. “Anything made of plastic is killing the negative ions [electrically charged particles that researchers say may improve our moods, energy, and overall health] in the room,” says Helmut Ziehe, a baubiologist with the Institute for Baubiologie. “And if you are losing negative ions . . . that basically means dust particles and bacteria are suspended in the air over these negative ions and they are creating an unhealthy indoor climate.” Plastic also contributes to static electricity, which Ziehe says can influence the body’s electromagnetic field and ultimately harm a child’s immune system.
Keep electronics to a minimum. Ziehe says electronic gadgets such as baby monitors, lamps, and alarm clocks can distort the body’s natural magnetic field. “There are examples where the baby’s cried and tried to get away” from a baby monitor, he says. “They change their position in their crib or bed and cry all the time. As soon as you take the thing away, they stop.” Ziehe suggests unplugging electric appliances when they aren’t in use. “Even if you have a lamp, you want to unplug it at night,” he says. “If you don’t, you still have an electromagnetic field there. The position of the bed should be checked to see if there’s an electric gadget in the vicinity. Magnetic fields cannot be shielded, so they will go right through a concrete wall. If you have a refrigerator on the other side of the wall, whenever the motor kicks in, a magnetic field is created, and that field reaches through the wall into the sleeping area.”
Avoid metal furniture. “Our body works on electricity,” Ziehe says. “We are electromagnetic bodies, but we are working at a very low voltage. Electromagnetic energy transmits information from the brain through the nerves to wherever the information is needed. If you want to move a toe, an impulse runs from the brain to the toe. If you superimpose a strong field on this system, the information flow is not working or is faulty.”