A pretty, newly decorated baby’s room is fun to create and adds to the excitement of waiting for your baby’s arrival. But we are starting to realize all that new stuff—carpeting, paint, furniture and bedding—can off-gas a lot of potentially dangerous chemicals. How can we ensure that our precious baby’s nursery is as “clean” as possible?
Stephen Collette, a building biology environmental consultant in Lakefield, Ont., has done just that for his two young daughters. With some help from the Guide to Less Toxic Products from the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, he gives us a green nursery tour. But first, this advice: Do your decorating several months in advance of your baby’s birth and then air the room well, so the worst of any off-gassing has time to dissipate.
“Walls should be painted with low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints,” advises Collette. Look for the Ecologo or Envirodesic label, from brands such as Benjamin Moore and Farrow & Ball. Wallpaper is mostly made of vinyl, which off-gasses plastic compounds. If you’re keen on wallpaper, you can reduce its air quality impact by sticking to borders.
How to design a modern nursery
While a nice soft carpet might seem the comfiest choice, new carpeting off-gasses toxic chemicals. But if you really want it, carpeting with the industry’s Green Label contains fewer harmful ingredients. A better alternative, suggests Collette, is a natural, solid, easy-to-clean surface like cork or prefinished wood flooring. An area rug on top, with a no-skid undermat, “can be taken outside, washed and aired out,” says Collette, “and let UV kill the dust mites.”
Particleboard, chipboard and pressboard are commonly used to make modern furniture, but because of all the glue that holds them together, they off-gas formaldehyde, sometimes for years. Choose solid-wood or metal furniture. Used solid-wood furniture is an economical alternative, but make sure cribs meet current safety standards, and cover any pre-1960 furniture with low-VOC paint, as the original finish may contain lead.
If you’re buying slatted blinds, go for metal blinds instead of plastic.
Bedding and clothing
Did you know that most baby bedding and clothing are treated with both fire retardant and sizing that give fabric a nice finish, but contain formaldehyde? At minimum, wash everything before using it for your baby, and avoid anything that is advertised as wrinkle-resistant. Soaking the fabric in milk (powdered is fine) before washing will help draw out chemicals, according to Collette.
Better yet, buy soft furnishings and clothing that are chemical-free. It’s getting easier to find natural organic clothes and bedding. You could also buy fabric and make some of your own bedding, or buy used clothing that has already had most of the harmful chemicals washed out.
If you use disposables, you can reduce the impact by choosing chlorine-free and biodegradable diapers, and by recycling them (if possible in your area). If you use cloth, reduce the impact of laundering by using an Energy Star–rated washing machine, choosing low-impact detergent and air-drying. For cleaning baby’s bottom, try plain water and a baby washcloth (and sometimes a bit of soap!); for travel convenience, choose chlorine-free wipes.
Personal care products
Collette reminds us that products like air fresheners, fabric softeners and petro-chemical-based skin products all add to the chemical load. Look for natural, edible skin care products, traditionally available at health food stores, but now making their way into mainstream pharmacies and supermarkets (for example, Burt’s Bees). And be careful of scented products, says Collette: “If you want things to smell clean, hang them on the laundry line.”