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Are There Hidden Health Hazards In Your Baby’s Nursery?
Would you expose your newborn baby to formaldehyde, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and pesticides? Of course not! Even if you were told, it shouldn’t affect your baby’s health, you wouldn’t want to take that chance. Yet one of the first things we do as expectant parents is to prepare a nursery for our baby. We paint, buy a crib, mattress, and bedding and perhaps even install new carpeting in the room that our baby will spend the majority of their first year.
Did you know that these products contain formaldehyde, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, pesticide residues and other chemicals that could affect your baby’s health and development?
It’s bad enough that we expose ourselves to these chemicals but it is even worse for our children. Babies are more susceptible to the effects of toxins than adults for several reasons. The most obvious reason is that babies are much smaller and therefore have a lower tolerance to toxins. Babies are also developing very rapidly and any chemical that interferes with the growth and development process is going to have a greater effect on them as compared to an adult. Babies also take in more air than adults in relation to their body size which means they are breathing in more toxins than an adult. Finally, many toxic gasses commonly found in the home are heavier than air and settle near the floor where children play.
There are many measures we can take as parents to make our home a more natural, safer place to raise healthy children. Listed below are the sources of many common household toxins and what you can do to eliminate or reduce the risk of exposure for your baby and yourself.
Flame retardants are probably one of the first toxins your baby will encounter in the home. Even though it may seem like you never get any sleep with a newborn in the house, babies actually do a lot of sleeping–about 60% of their first year! That is a lot of time to spend in close contact with a mattress treated with flame retardants called PBDEs. Several animal studies have found that PBDEs build up in the body over time and exposure during critical growth periods may cause irreversible reproductive and nervous system damage(1). PBDEs are chemically similar to PCBs which were banned in 1976 after they were found to cause cancer and affect the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine system in animals(2). PBDEs are already banned in Europe but unfortunately they are still widely used in the US. An organic crib mattress is essential for a healthy nursery. Consider purchasing a mattress made with organic cotton or latex and wool. The wool not only acts to regulate temperature, but is also naturally fire retardant. An organic cotton and wool crib mattress will meet the same government standards for flammability as a chemically treated mattress but is a much more natural option and avoids any potential risks of PBDEs.
Most crib bedding is made with cotton, the second most heavily pesticide treated crop in the world. Of the top nine pesticides used in cotton farming, five have been shown to cause cancer and are rated among the most dangerous by the Environmental Protection Agency. Even more chemicals are added during the process to convert the raw cotton into cloth. Because your baby will spend so much time sleeping, it makes sense that their crib bedding be free from any pesticide residue or chemical contaminants. When shopping for crib bedding, opt for those made with organic cotton, grown without the use of pesticides. Children also love to put their toys in their mouth so consider purchasing stuffed animals made from organic cotton, especially when babies are teething.
Another source of pesticide exposure is from treating our homes and yards. Research indicates that children exposed to higher levels of pesticides had seven times the risk of developing childhood Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma(3). As an alternative to conventional pesticides, consider using cornmeal in the yard to prevent weed seeds from germinating (available in many garden shops and online). There are several good books written on the subject of natural gardening that provide natural solutions to all kinds of lawn and garden problems. My personal favorites are books by Jerry Baker who has literally thousands of tips and tricks. Inside the home, pesticides made from orange peel are safe, natural and very effective at killing many common pests.
Most paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOC) that off gas into the air long after the paint has dried. That wet paint smell is actually due to the VOCs in the paint evaporating into the air. Healthier paint alternatives would be a natural paint, zero VOC paint or a low VOC paint. Natural paints are the healthiest choice. They are made form natural plant based compounds and have almost no smell. Zero VOC paints are also a safe choice, are very easy to work with, have very little or no odor and are widely available and affordable. By law, paint with 5 grams per liter VOC or less may be called a zero VOC paint. Tinting the paint may add a small amount of VOC but usually not exceeding 10 grams per liter VOC which is still very low. To minimize the amount of VOCs added by tint, choose a pastel or light color for your baby’s nursery. These colors are also very soothing and will help you baby to relax and fall asleep faster. The VOC content for low VOC paint varies and is usually written on the label. These paints will often have an odor at least until dry. Regardless of what type of paint you are using, if you are pregnant, it is best to let someone else do the painting if possible or at least choose safe paint and make sure there is adequate ventilation.
Lead is another consideration when discussing paint toxins. If your home was built before 1978, it may have been painted with a lead based paint. Because lead can cause developmental problems in children, any chipped paint where it could be ingested poses a health risk. Pregnant women should also be careful to avoid areas where anything that may contain lead based paint is being sanded or refinished.
Household Cleaners and Baby Bath Items
Most household cleaners are toxic chemicals. Consider using cleaners that are made from plant and vegetable based ingredients and essential oils for fragrance. Rather than using a synthetic cleaner on tile or linoleum flooring where a child will crawl and play, use a stream cleaner which will disinfect without the use of chemicals.
While there are many bath soaps and shampoos on the market made especially for baby, often these are just milder versions of the adult formula. Read the labels and ask yourself if you would want those ingredients (Yes…even the ones you can’t pronounce) inside your baby’s body. The skin acts as a barrier for some chemicals however many are absorbed through the skin, a process which is aided by the warmth and moisture while bathing. Natural soaps, lotions and oils are always the best choice for your baby.
Traditional carpeting and the adhesives sometimes used in its installation can be a toxic nightmare. Carpeting contains too many VOCs to name them all but include neurotoxins like toluene and xylene and carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde which may off gas into the air for years. Older carpet contains years of accumulated dust and dirt that may contribute to the development of asthma. Pesticides tracked indoors from shoes also build up in carpeting over time. There are many other flooring options besides carpeting that are now coming into mainstream design. Cork flooring is beautiful, soft and environmentally friendly. Bamboo is another beautiful environmentally friendly option. Just make sure that the manufacturer and the installer do not use any glues containing formaldehyde. Natural fiber area rugs are another option which can be laid on cork, bamboo or tile floors to define a space or to give your baby a soft spot to land while learning to walk. Some people just love the look and warmth of wall to wall carpeting and for those there is low VOC carpeting made from recycled plastic which is even more durable an stain resistant than traditional carpeting.
Indoor Air Pollution
The toxins from the sources above and more fill the air in our homes. We hear reports about smog and air pollution but according to the EPA, indoor air pollution may be 3-5 times worse than the air we breathe outdoors. Chemicals released into the air build up and can not escape especially in newer homes which are constructed to be airtight and more energy efficient. When the weather cooperates we can open the windows to air out the house but when it is cold or when the air conditioner is running there is little air exchange between indoors and out. In families with toddlers, leaving the windows open may pose a safety hazard. So what can we do? One of the least expenses things we can do is to bring some plants into our home which are able to remove chemicals from the air, acting as a purifier. Not all plants are created equal in this respect. NASA has tested and ranked twelve species of plants to determine the best at removing trichloroethylene, benzene and formaldehyde from the air. Here is what they found:
- Gerbera daisy, Dracaena Marginata, Peace lily (Spathiphyllum), Dracaena ‘Janet Craig’ and Bamboo palm were the five most effective plants in eliminating trichloroethylene.
- Gerbera Daisy, pot Mum, Peace lily, Bamboo palm, Dracaena Warneckei, English ivy and Mother-in-law’s tongue are the best houseplants for removing benzene.
- Bamboo palm, Dracaena ‘Janet Craig’, Mother-in-law’s tongue, Dracaena Marginata, Peace lily, green Spider plant, and golden pothos are the top plants for removing formaldehyde.
Just remember to give your Gerbera daisy a lot of sun! Based on this study, an 1800 square foot home would need between 15-20 plants to clean the air. I love plants and my home is full of them. I think they create a warm and inviting atmosphere but not everyone wants to feel like they are living in a jungle. In addition, some people have allergies which prohibit them from filling their home with plants. For those people and as an extra layer of protection, consider an air purifier, especially if any renovation was done to prepare your baby’s nursery.
There are several different types of air purifiers available. The best will have HEPA or HEGA filtration and will also remove airborne gasses. Beware of air purifiers that contain ionizers as they may release ozone into the air which is harmful to lung tissue, especially for those with asthma. Purifiers are available in a wide range of prices but also consider how much it will cost to operate in terms of electricity and replacement filters. Consider how noisy a unit is while running. If you can’t leave it run, an air purifier will not serve its purpose.
While it is impossible to point a finger at one particular chemical, over the last few decades, cancer and asthma rates have increased, learning disabilities have increased 191% between 1977 and 1994, autism rates have skyrocketed 556% over the last ten years nationwide(4) and the rate of premature births is up 29% since 1981(5). One thing we do know is that as a nation, our children are getting sicker.
Children learn values through their parent’s actions. By making healthy decisions for your baby now, you are teaching them to make healthy decisions for themselves later in life. As parents, we want only the best for our children. Why take chances with your baby’s health by purchasing products that contain harmful chemicals when there are healthy alternatives available?
- 1. Science News. Oct 25, 2003, vol 164, p.266
- 2. http://www.epa.gov/pcb/effects.html
- 3. Cancer. Dec 1, 2000, vol 89 (11) p. 2315-21.
- 4. US Department of Education, 2002
- 5. http://www.iceh.org/pdfs/LDDI/2004NIHMeeting
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