Monday, September 22, 2008

Green Nursery

So you’re having a baby. Congratulations—and yikes! your environmental footprint has grown several sizes. Plus, you’re now worried about hazards that never even occurred to you before. As an environmental reporter, I knew a little too much for comfort when I started planning for our son. I also knew that you can’t avoid all possible dangers; but you can be informed and make good choices. Consumer advocates often invoke a concept called the precautionary principle: basically, if you don’t know how something might harm someone, err on the side of caution. Some of the decisions I made for my son were based on this idea, not necessarily proof that a product could harm him. Because children are more vulnerable to contaminants, I watched his exposure more carefully than I would my own. Finally, I made some choices based on what I thought was better for the environment, even if it wouldn’t directly harm my family.

Ask your home improvement store for “low VOC” or "no VOC" paint. If the salesperson gives you a blank stare, ask for the "least polluting" paint. Already painted? Don't sweat it. Just give the room plenty of time to air out before you put baby in it. The same goes for new furnishings. 

Easy tip: If something smells chemically, there's a good chance that things you don’t want to inhale or ingest are offgassing. Air out the item (or return it). That said, you can’t always sniff out a problem, so read on for more advice.

Old Paint

Researchers know a lot more about the dangers of lead than most of the chemicals discussed below. Lead is definitely dangerous. We live in a house built in 1926. We didn’t try to remove the old paint (you need an expert for that); we covered it. If you do this, you’ll need to check your rooms periodically for areas that chip and wear. Clean up any chips or dust, and consider covering the eroded area.  When your child is older and less likely to eat chips or put dusty hands in her mouth, you won’t have to worry so much.

Friends—nice friends—gave us a crib, a changing table, and a glider chair. It’s not a matching set, but remember the mantra: “reduce, reuse, recycle?” Reduce and reuse come before recycle. I made sure hand-me-downs weren’t too old, so they’d be up to current safety standards. It’s also a good idea to check that nursery items haven’t been recalled at
Let new furniture air out.  Try to keep your child from mouthing the furniture, it can contain formaldehyde. If you can afford it, you can buy hardwood cribs coated with low-VOC finishes. 

You can also look for untreated, natural carpeting. We have a conventional rug in our son's room. But when he was little and rolling around on it, we spread blankets on top of the rug. 

The biggest investment we made was a flame-retardant-free, natural rubber mattress. Babies spend a lot of time in their beds; conventional mattresses and upholstered furniture are drenched with flame-retarding chemicals (PBDEs) that are accumulating in the environment and human bodies. California has banned some of these, but questions remain about the chemical still in use. We purchased our mattress from, and also bought organic cotton sheets.

I registered for some organic cotton baby clothes and blankets, but most of our son’s clothes are not organic. Organic crops are better for the earth, but I haven’t seen any evidence that conventional clothing harms kids. So, if you have limited funds, spend your bucks on a better mattress (see above).

To avoid flame retardants on pajamas, look for "long johns." We like the organic ones sold by Hanna Anderson, but our son also wore some conventional pajamas. 

Lotions, soaps, shampoo
To be safe, I use natural or organic brands, such as Jason, California Baby, Avalon Organic, or Burts Bees. They are starting to be widely available. Conventional products often contain preservatives and other chemicals added only to make the product look, feel or smell better. There’s growing evidence that some of them, especially phthalates, aren’t good for babies. The good news for concerned parents is the federal government recently banned the most worrisome phthalates in products for children under age 12. Manufacturers will also have to prove additional phthalates are safe before using them. The law takes effect January 1, 2009. 

My favorite rash cream? Hyland’s. It’s the only one I’ve found that seems to heal a rash. Also, skip the antibacterial soap. If you’re germ phobic, All Terrain makes an all natural hand sanitizer called Hand Sanz.

There are now better choices than when my son was born in 2007. Concern over chemicals used to make some plastics more pliable has prompted some retailers and manufacturers to cut back on some of the questionable stuff. To be safe, you can avoid soft plastics, such as PVC plastics. Not all plastics are labeled, but you can steer clear of #3 and #7. Some brands label their baby products as “phthalate free” and/or “free of Bisphenol-A (BPA).” These are good choices, as are wooden and cloth toys. You can also look for toys made in Europe. The EU has stricter product standards than the US. We like the German HABA brand, (US-made) Melissa and Doug, and  Nova Natural. Two nice sites for well-made kids’ toys are A Toy Garden and  Maukilo. These can be expensive, but they usually last longer than the cheap, plastic stuff. That said, my son has plenty of (hard) plastic toys--and some soft ones, too--especially as he’s gotten older and doesn’t put everything in his mouth. I did avoid certain bath toys (vinyl bath books and PVC duckies) until recently.

I love hand-me-down toys, but I'm also alarmed by recent recalls of toys containing lead paint. So I'm more careful about painted toys, especially if I didn't buy them from a natural toy company. 

Paper or Cloth? Both.
What’s worse all those diapers piling up in the landfill, or the water it takes to wash the cotton ones? While you’ll find advocates on either side, most neutral parties call it a draw. That’s why I say, hedge your bets and use both. I was given a gift of a diaper service when my son was born, but didn't continue it. I'm concerned about anything that generates more truck trips in our smoggy region.
Here’s my trick: We use Seventh Generation chlorine-free or biodegradable Nature Babycare brand (available at Target) disposables. We add into the mix FuzziBunz cloth diapers. I try to put these on after I’ve already changed a poop. That way I can mix the merely wet diapers in with my regular laundry, skipping the need for a separate diaper load. Of course, you'll still get caught with the occasional double poop.

Confession: We also use conventional Huggies Overnite, because mommy will do anything to sleep in longer. And I've tried just about every brand that was on sale.

That extra baby laundry not only means you use more water, it also requires more energy. Assuage your guilt by trying a clothes line. Sunlight is a sterilizer, and it will bleach out some stains better than a stain-removing spray. On hot days, your laundry will dry faster on the line than in a dryer. And your house will stay cooler.

You can buy a retractable line at a home improvement store.

My tip:
Don’t worry about pinning things up perfectly, especially in summer months; one pin on a corner of a shirt or dish towel should do the trick. You can throw up more this way, too.

Undesirable chemicals are more likely to leech out of plastic when it’s heated or comes in contact with acidic foods. To avoid concerns over plastic baby bottles, try old fashioned glass bottles. We used Evenflo classic for our son, but Born Free also makes glass bottles, as well as plastic bottles that don’t contain Bisphenol-A (PBA). To reduce air in his tummy, we used inserts from the Dr. Brown’s brand bottles, and cut them to fit the glass bottles. Born Free bottles have their own vent system, but our son didn’t do well with their wide nipple. With our system, we put the glass bottles in the dishwasher, and washed the inserts and nipples by hand. Most nipples these days are silicon, which is a good choice.

We bought our bottles and other baby items at Natural Baby Catalog.

Whew! Okay, now try not to worry. These tips are intended as safeguards.

Recommended Referrences: The Green Guide and Environmental Health News

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