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Expecting a child can be one of the most exciting times of our lives — and also the most anxiety-ridden. Especially with a first baby, doubts and fears can run thick, distracting us from moments of joyful communion with the new life stirring inside. New parents have always wondered “Can I handle this?” or “Will I make some terrible mistake?” More recently, we fixate on new fears, quite apart from our ability to be good parents: “How do I reduce my baby’s exposure to the toxic hazards of our modern world?”

“Nesting” is a natural impulse arising during the months of pregnancy. We find inspiration and new energy to create a cozy and wholesome environment for our growing family. Many parents find themselves deep-cleaning, “baby-proofing”, and maybe creating a special nursery or playspace for the coming infant. Unfortunately, these activities can involve bringing hazardous products into the home, creating potential long-term health-impacts for a developing fetus or a newborn child. This is their most vulnerable and formative phase, when all their essential systems are still developing and the stage is being set for future health.

Information is so available on the internet that a simple Google search (such as “toxic home products”) can feel like getting swept away in an avalanche. We’d rather spend our expectant time savoring the process and stocking up on sleep — not fretting. Here’s a quick run-down to make sense of the endless and contradictory warnings. Life is full of risks, but some of them are easy to avoid.

A fresh coat of paint

Sure, that robin’s egg blue or sunflower yellow will look cheery, but what about the air trapped between those four walls? The paint you’re rolling on those walls may be a leading reason our indoor air pollution can be three times worse than outdoors. The culprit is volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as carcinogenic formaldehyde, which are slowly released into your home for years — long after the initial “new paint” smell has dissipated.

Your baby is fortunate to be born in an era where the hazards of VOCs are recognized, and “zero-VOC” paint is readily available — just ask at your local home store. Adding a pigment will generally increase the VOC content mildly, but it will remain very low. Regardless, always use good ventilation when applying new paint, and let it dry and cure thoroughly before using the room, if possible. If you’re concerned about previously applied paint or remanufactured wood products, there are actually paints available which will absorb VOCs from under-layers and room air. VOC absorbing paints are available at Ecos Paints, if you’re ready to take the next step in indoor-air-quality improvement. Such products are particularly helpful to families with environmental sensitivities or compromised health from chronic disease.

For more on this subject, including tips on buying, using, and disposing of paint, read our complete guide to nontoxic painting.

The clean sweep

Should I get the carpets commercially cleaned, or the floors polished? During pregnancy and early infancy, be mindful of what you’re inviting into your home. Carpet cleaner contains a known neurotoxin called aliphatic petroleum solvent. Tripropylene glycol monomethyl, found in floor cleaners, polishes, and waxes has been linked to kidney failure. In many cases, you can either skip such a service entirely, or use a nontoxic alternative. Carpets can be steamed with plain water, and floors polished with a combination of olive oil, vinegar, and lemon oil.

Even major hotels are making the switch to less toxic cleaning products, in response to a growing wave of awareness about the dangers of common ingredients in most disinfectants, detergents, and solvents. Read labels carefully to avoid falling victim to greenwashing in packaging: “Green” and “Natural” are unregulated and often meaningless claims. Trust reputable sources and find your favorite brands to depend upon. Even common ammonium chloride, found in toilet bowl cleaners, shampoo, and various disinfectants and deodorizers, can be permanently corrosive to the eyes. There’s a literal “laundry list” of such cleaning-product additives and their well-researched health warnings. FDA regulators bet on exposure levels being too low to cause measurable effects, but it’s an unnecessary gamble. Remember that baking soda is a highly effective deodorizer, and that antibacterial disinfectants are being widely questioned. Even the FDA admits they are likely no more effective than soap and water, expose us to questionable additives such as triclosan, and contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

It’s easy (and cheap) to make your own highly effective cleaning products with common pantry items such as baking soda and vinegar. If you prefer the convenience of a prepared formula with or without a pleasant natural scent added, there’s a non-toxic product for every need from dishwashing to window cleaning. Oh, and who would want to expose a baby to pesticides? If pest control is an issue, there are plenty of safe methods to successfully eradicate your nemesis, whether it be fleas, cockroaches, or bedbugs. All-purpose insect-control diatomaceous earth is a good place to start: it kills bugs with dehydration, not poison, and doesn’t affect humans.

Putting in a new porch or deck, and want to protect and beautify the wood where your children will play? There’s a safe alternative for that too.

Once upon a mattress

You may never know what that new mattress or couch is off-gassing, but even if you find out it’s not likely to ease your mind. Formaldehyde, flame retardants, VOCs — oh my. Your baby will likely be spending at least 12 hours each day in intimate contact with a mattress, breathing in its most concentrated fumes, which tend to hover within a few inches of the mattress’s surface. When you lay her down for a nap, you want to walk away feeling great about where you’re leaving her (so you can enjoy some much needed rest, yoga, or grown-up conversation yourself).

Some preliminary research conducted in Britain and New Zealand found evidence of mattress chemicals, when heated to body temperature and in combination with a certain prevalent microscopic fungus, producing toxic nerve gasses which could play a role in SIDs deaths. The role of mattresses in SIDs remains controversial, but this is one variable we can control. Though mattresses release their most concentrated VOCs when new, even a non-new mattress may not be safe: 95% of the mattresses studied in one SIDs research project had been previously used by an older sibling.

Whether you’re using a stand-alone crib, a co-sleeper, or choosing to keep your infant in your own bed, ask questions about what’s in that mattress. Inside, the vast majority of mattresses are based on polyurethane foam, known to release VOCs for many years after purchase, and almost invariably impregnated with several pounds of flame retardants, including chemicals which have been banned for use in children’s clothing due to known harmful effects.

Second, what’s enclosing that foam? In most crib mattresses the covering is a waterproof vinyl, also known to off-gas toxic fumes. Not to mention more flame retardants — this class of chemicals is notoriously slippery, as after one chemical is banned or “voluntarily recalled” due to incriminating evidence, it’s replaced by another whose only virtue is lack of evidence. Several years can then pass before sufficient studies have been completed on this new additive, though meanwhile many thousands of children and adults are needlessly exposed. It’s worth noting that most natural materials, especially wool, have superior fire resistance and do not need chemical treatment to pass safety standards.

The jury is literally still out on many mattress ingredients. There are ongoing lawsuits against products, such as Tempurpedic’s memory foam, claiming false safety and ingredient claims have been made. Consumers have played unwilling guinea pigs and are rarely compensated for damages: it’s hard to conclusively prove which health problems are directly caused by a mattress, even when getting sick correlates closely with a mattress purchase.

What should we look for instead? The safest filling materials include organic cotton, wool, and natural latex. Both wool and latex can occasionally be allergenic, although both have many excellent qualities, such as resistance to dust mites and low-flammability. For the mattress covering, avoid PVC (vinyl) and flame-retardant fabrics. If you need waterproofing (fairly essential for babies), food-grade polyethylene sheeting can be used; if you buy a “natural” waterproof mattress cover, verify it does not contain PVC and is not treated with flame retardants. For superior temperature regulation, natural water resistance and antimicrobial properties, virgin wool is hard to beat for both mattress filling and covers.

It’s not just mattresses — VOCs and flame retardants are rampant in home products including carpets, drapes, shower curtains, and any furniture containing pressed wood, foam, or upholstery (almost everything!). Avoid bringing home brand new department store items during this sensitive time. The earth thanks you for accepting gently used items from friends or secondhand stores, or spending a little more for the safe, sustainable choice. Choose solid wood and natural untreated fibers when possible. Adult exposure matters too, though our larger, more mature systems are less vulnerable: babies can accumulate toxins through the placenta and breast milk.

Baby monitors and other gadgets: safety in the digital age

A good digital baby monitor is often reckoned indispensable to new parents, showing up on nearly every baby shower registry. What peace of mind to be able to hear and respond quickly to your baby’s waking noises, providing relative freedom during naptime, even in a large home. New baby monitors allow us to see as well as hear our little one, so that we can check in as often as we wish without climbing the stairs or risking the noise of entering the room. But do these benefits come with new anxieties attached?

Just as cellular and cordless phones are under increasing scrutiny for potential long-term radiation effects, wireless devices such as baby monitors and wifi routers are questioned by some health advocates. The radiation emitted by a baby monitor is only a fraction of a cell phone on a call, but a phone call is generally brief, while the monitor is usually on for hours at a stretch. Not much is known about the effects of this type of chronic, low-level exposure. Wireless technology is everywhere, and most of us choose to accept its usefulness as justifying its unknown risks.

The FCC and other monitoring agencies accept digital monitoring devices as safe, and wireless technology has become so ubiquitous that it is now nearly impossible to conduct any kind of long term controlled study between populations with comparable lifestyles but differing technological radiation levels. But governments in Germany and France have issued advisories against such wireless devices, and have proposed removal of wi-fi from libraries and schools. Children are believed to be more vulnerable to potential radiation effects, due to their small size, higher brain conductivity, and thinner skulls.

The mayor of a small French town explained, regarding removal of wi-fi in all schools, “We are going to apply the precautionary principle. Our job is to protect people’s health.” Each family needs to weigh the unknown risks against the benefits, and choose their own “precautionary principle”. Whereas some devices may be considered essential for the smooth functioning of the household, you might be surprised how easily you get used to living without others. Cell phones can be used in moderation during the day away from baby (texting is generally considered lower-impact than extended talk time), and powered down at night. Cordless phones and wi-fi routers can be plugged in as far away as possible from baby’s play and sleeping spaces.

And the baby monitor? It’s up to you. Other solutions for safe napping include placing a crib or other safe sleeping surface near the main living space, and leaving a door open for easy audibility. If children are accustomed to napping in the presence of moderate noise from adult activities from near birth, such ambient noise will generally not disturb their sleep.

The plastic avalanche: toys, gifts, and accessories

Most of us who have the time and energy to spend on researching nontoxic baby products live in a culture of great abundance. We are fortunate to have more than we need to survive, and to have access to a huge selection of inexpensive products which promise to improve our lives even more. When we’re expecting a baby, it can be tempting to stock up on all kinds of potential “necessities”. Some of us may find well meaning friends and relatives leaving boxes of baby paraphernalia on our doorsteps, or going overboard with a profusion of baby shower gifts.

Besides cluttering up our homes, what’s the problem? Besides the devastating environmental impact of poorly-regulated Chinese factories, new baby clothes may be treated with flame retardants, out-gas VOCs from synthetic components, or contain residual pesticides from cotton growing. Plastic gadgets and toys are often made with additives such as phthalates and BPA which give plastic that appealing pliability, but are notorious as potential carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

Even if we feel internally clear about keeping our baby’s environment simple and nontoxic, it can be hard to navigate this cultural overload. No one wants to say “no” to a loving baby offering. But sometimes those who care may actually appreciate some clear requests and guidelines about gifts. Some expectant parents find it simplest to simply say “no plastic, please”, and others go even further, discouraging any department store purchases at all. For those that want to support the new family, suggested baby shower gifts could include gift certificates to the local natural food co-op, a massage or other therapeutic treatment for the new parents, or carefully selected items which might actually feel helpful: organic cotton diapers or baby blankets, a small grinder to make your own baby food, or some untreated solid wood furniture or toys for baby’s room.

You can even put your zero-VOC paint on your alternative baby registry, or your safe cleaning products, or a nontoxic mattress cover… even gardening supplies, recognizing that there are many important ways to nurture and nourish our young! It may be unconventional, but your friends may learn more about you, as well as gain awareness of new choices which may benefit their families as well.

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