Eco-Friendly Nursery Basics

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Decorate your baby’s room in an eco-friendly way! Purchasing green living products for your baby can have positive effects on your child’s health.

Like many women, I discovered unknown maternal instincts when I stared for the first time at the ultrasound screen and the blurry shape of the tiny stowaway I was harboring suddenly swam into view. Those instincts inspired me to eat healthy food, take up yoga, avoid smoky rooms, and best of all—shop! Brand-new baby products called to me from catalogues and showrooms: cribs with colorful ruffled linens, charming tot-size furniture, and perfectly-proportioned bookshelves.

What many mothers don’t realize, though, is that while most baby products are perfectly safe, some aren’t. Permanent-press sheets are treated with formaldehyde—a known carcinogenic—and plywood furnishings can release potentially harmful petrochemical volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.

Because babies are small and their immune, hormonal, and nervous systems are still developing, environmental pollutants affect them more than they might an adult. And if you’re pregnant, it’s wise to avoid sanding, painting, and applying finishes, because exposures to chemicals can harm your baby. Here are some guidelines for purchasing kinder, gentler products for your baby’s first bedroom. (Links and contact numbers for many of the products mentioned appear at the end of this article).

Cribs

All new cribs must meet federal Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) guidelines. But these guidelines don’t address materials such as composite woods made with formaldehyde, or paints or polyurethanes containing fungicides, and other additives that you really don’t want a baby chewing on. You might consider a crib such as Pacific Rim Woodworking’s, made from solid maple and either left unfinished or finished with pure, raw tung and linseed oils. The crib can be converted to a toddler bed.

Mattresses and Bedding

Most conventional mattresses are made from polyurethane foam, nylon, polyester, and vinyl—all derived from petroleum—and are treated with anti-microbial and fire-, wetness-, and stain-retarding chemicals, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These chemicals can accumulate in breast milk and in fat, and have been shown to inhibit brain development in animals. As alternatives, consider crib mattresses made with organic cotton, wool padding, and natural rubber and free of chemicals.

The most common cause of eczema rashes in infants is food allergies—often allergies to something a breastfeeding mother has eaten—according to Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block. But the number-two cause is irritation from soaps, laundry detergent, or chemical treatments on bedding—especially sheets—which come into direct contact with the skin, Dr. Karp says.

If you do buy a conventional (and less expensive) mattress, let it air out as long as possible before the baby arrives. A mattress cover made of untreated cotton flannel can provide a comfy barrier between baby and any offgassing chemicals, while protecting against minor leaks. A wool pad, naturally water-resistant, beneath the sheet provides an excellent second line of defense.

Janine Kourakos, a first-time mother in Brooklyn, New York, bought one of these for her daughter, Sofia. “I couldn’t bear to have anything artificial touching her perfect skin,” she explains, adding that the wool “feels warm in winter and cool in summer.” The American SIDS Institute recommends that parents put nothing (including comforters, blankets, and top sheets) in a crib besides the baby and the clothes she’s wearing.

Other Furniture

Pacific Rim makes all-wood, child-proportioned tables, chairs, and more. If you are tempted to splurge on just one really stunning piece, a hardwood rocking chair, unlike upholstered ones, will still be aesthetically pleasing and up for the task when your child is old enough to cuddle his or her own baby. Gary Weeks, a woodworker, makes curvy rockers of cherry, maple, and mahogany certified by the Forest Stewardship Council(FSC) as coming from sustainably-managed forests.

Carpets

Rugs can pad a crawling infant’s knees and provide soft landings for a toddler adjusting to life as a biped. But synthetic-carpeting systems, and even most wool ones, are treated with stainproofing chemicals, mothproofing pesticides, and more. A 1994 EPA analysis discovered toluene and xylene, both neurotoxic substances, and benzene, a known carcinogen, in some carpet samples tested.

Wall-to-wall can’t be taken up for a thorough wash, and pollutants can settle in deeper than vacuums can reach. Dust mites are a common trigger for asthma, and asthma rates are climbing among children. An estimated 6.3 million kids now suffer from the disease. Pesticides and herbicides sprayed on lawns, lead dust from your neighbors’ renovation project—pretty much anything blown or tracked into your house—can settle into your carpet and hide out for years. In 1992 and 1993, 20 years after DDT was banned, researchers from the University of Southern California and the Southwest Research Institute found DDT buried in the carpeting of 25 percent of the 550 houses they tested.

Since babies spend a good deal of time on the floor, it can be best to leave them bare, with washable, natural-fiber rugs placed here and there. Susan Snover weaves colorful area rugs from recycled fabrics, such as old clothing and bits of leftover wool and upholstery from manufacturers. You can also buy untreated wool broadloom, finished with an edge.

Another option: Buy vintage! It’s a form of recycling. When our nearly new and expensive wall-to-wall became impossibly stained with spilled juice and other toddler accidents (I won’t elaborate), we replaced it with an old, all-wool Tunisian kilim in a bright palette that can be rolled up and sent out to be cleaned.

Flooring

If you have wood floors in good repair, they can be refinished with a low-VOC product such as Polyureseal BP made by AFM Safecoat. For new flooring, Christina Erickson of Green By Design, a design firm in Santa Monica, California, suggests true linoleum, made of all-natural materials: sawdust, linseed oils, pigments and a jute backing. It’s soft underfoot, and easy to clean. A linoleum floor for a child’s room, Erickson says, “can be made colorful and fun with a contrasting border, a collage or any sort of pattern.”

Consider cork, too. It’s a natural insulator of both heat and sound that’s also soft enough to absorb the impact from your child’s inevitable tumbles. “Cork flooring has some really attractive environmental qualities,” says Alex Wilson, editor of Environmental Building News, but he warns against tiles composed from just a thin cork veneer stuck to a vinyl backing. Furthermore, he cautions that some cork flooring may include binders containing formaldehyde. But Jeremy Kanyo of the Environmental Home Center, a distributor of green building materials in Seattle, Washington, assures that most cork products “meet or exceed Europe’s stringent guidelines for the amount of allowable toxic emissions.”

Taking the time to create a “green” nursery does add another layer of effort to your prenatal preparations, but then knowing that your baby is getting the healthiest start will give you one less thing to worry about.

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