According to the American Lung Association, lung disease and breathing problems are the number one cause of death in infants less than a year old. Think about it: young children have small airways that can shut down when inflamed; they breathe more times per minute than adults, meaning they also breathe in more toxins; and they're closer to the ground, where heavy chemicals and particles tend to congregate. All this means that when building and furnishing living areas for children, extra attention should be paid to keeping out biological and chemical pollutants.
“Children are extremely vulnerable, so we need to do our very best with the air quality we provide them,” says Bernadette V. Upton, owner of EcoDecor in North Palm Beach, FL, which specializes in environmentally friendly and healthful interior designs.
Healthy Wall and Floor Treatments
The best approach to creating a healthy indoor environment is to minimize the things in a baby's room than can contaminate the air. Use paints, finishes, and adhesives that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOC's), which can cause eye and breathing problems, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and cancer. After you paint the walls, air out the room before adding carpets and bedding that might absorb harmful emissions.
If you're stenciling or painting a mural, make sure the paints are low-VOC. When using a wall covering, stay away from vinyl, which is associated with the chemical dioxin. Paper wall coverings are good, but just make sure the adhesive is low VOC and that there is no mold-producing moisture underneath. Try to avoid wood paneling, which may contain formaldehyde, a common VOC. If you use it, allow the paneling to air thoroughly to release the highest concentrations of VOC's before installation and seal it with a low-VOC product to prevent further off-gassing.
When selecting flooring, steer clear of synthetic wall-to-wall carpets, which can emit VOC's and gather hard-to-clean dust mites and mold. Tile, wood, and linoleum are healthful choices; you can soften them with washable wool or cotton area rugs. If you opt for wall-to-wall-carpet, choose one with a low pile made of wool, nylon, or polyester and check for the Carpet Rug Institute's indoor air quality label. Have the carpet rolled out and off-gassed before installation, then air out the room for several days once it is down.
Unfortunately, many cribs, dressers, changing tables, and other furnishings for children are made of pressed-wood products containing formaldehyde. The best choice for kids' furniture is solid wood with a low-VOC finish. To make sure it's safe, ask the vendor for the item's material safety data sheet listing the components. If your budget limits you to pressed-wood products, you can contain the VOC's by sealing any exposed edges. The same goes for the shelves in your baby's closet, which are likely to be made of particleboard.
For window treatments, avoid blinds made with PVC, which has been associated with health problems. Look for blinds made from cotton, metal, or wood. When selecting children's furniture and toys made from plastic, try to stick with hard plastics, as softer ones are more likely to contain harmful chemicals. “The harder the plastic, the safer it is,” says Ginny Turner, president of Ecobaby Organics and Pure-Rest Organic Bedding Company in San Diego, CA, “If a product smells like plastic, you shouldn't have it around your child.” Upton agrees completely and encourages parents to trust their common sense. “The nose knows,” she says.
Soft Goods, Pillows, and Fabrics
Many of the soft goods that could go into a child's room are laden with chemicals that contribute to poor air quality. Formaldehyde is commonly used to keep fabrics wrinkle-free. Flame retardants are added to blankets, sheets, mattress pads, mattresses, polyurethane foams used in pillows and cushions, and children's clothing and pajamas. Pesticides used to grow cotton remain in the finished items.
To reduce the chance of these chemicals affecting your child, select bedding, curtains, mattresses, and furniture covers made with organically grown cottons and linens. Look for products that use wool, which does not easily burn, as a flame retardant. Choose mattresses containing foam made from natural rubber instead of polyurethane. Stay away from pads made with soft plastics.
Keep in mind that even if a fabric is labeled organic, it can still harbor chemicals added during processing, dyeing, or packaging. Turner recommends you seek out products made according to stringent guidelines. “The consumer needs to know who they're buying from,” she says.
Healthy Cleaning Products and Clean Air
The last thing you want to do is contaminate the air when you're trying to keep baby's room, bedding, and clothing clean. Look for environmentally safe cleaning products and natural alternatives such as vinegar, baking soda, and linseed oil. Avoid pesticides, aerosol sprays, and mothballs.
In addition to carefully choosing what you bring in to your child's room, Upton suggests removing harmful chemicals and particulates from the air mechanically. “I can't stress enough the importance of an air machine,” she says. “I think every parent should have one.”
Finding Healthy Products
Green fabrics, fibers, and furnishings represent a fairly new market in the U.S., but with people looking to learn more about healthy products, a number of sources and websites are popping up with information.
There may not be a universal organic certification or labeling protocol, but consumers can start researching companies and labels on the website of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements for the Organic Directory under The Organic World heading, which lists member organizations by country.
Another great resource is the Green Guide, a site that reviews everything from bedding to TV screens, organic vegetables to untreated fabrics.