New parents have enough to worry about without knowing the exact levels of formaldehyde off-gassing from the newly laid nursery carpet.
In some ways it's easier not to know.
Or is it? Given the chance, would you be curious, concerned - and brave - enough to scientifically measure toxins in the room knowing that your baby has been sleeping in it for weeks, or even months?
Not long ago I received an email from a new testing campaign, the 'Nesting project'. It invited parents who had just renovated their babies' rooms and are concerned about indoor air quality to take part in the campaign run by Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF). WECF is an international network of organisations concerned with, amongst other things, toxic chemicals in our daily lives.
Interested parents are sent two samplers to be placed in the baby's room for seven days before sending them to a laboratory for analysis. Anyone taking part gets the test results back within a few weeks.
The test kit measures various pollutants such as formaldehyde and other VOC's, (Volatile Organic Compounds) arising from newly laid flooring or carpet, soft furnishings, clothing, bedding, textiles and toys. VOCs are synthetic and natural substances that are emitted from everyday products and materials and include various household chemicals, solvents contained in glues, varnishes and other paint materials.
Symptoms from exposure to VOCs include eye, nose, throat and skin irritation and allergic reactions, nausea, headaches, dizziness and respiratory problems. Other health effects may include damage to liver, kidney, and the central nervous system. Some VOC's can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.
It's scary stuff. Yet the realisation that the air indoors can contain a cocktail of different chemicals is nothing new.
To take just one example: a US report, ‘Toxic Baby Furniture', released in 2008 by the Environment California Research & PolicyCenter, showed that baby nursery cribs, changing tables and dressers can emit formaldehyde at levels linked with increased risk of childhood allergies and asthma.
Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is a toxic chemical used by manufacturers in glues and adhesives and as a preservative in paints. In particular, products made from composite wood containing urea-formaldehyde glue tend to create indoor air pollution.
Knowing the exact extent to which the air in your newborn's nursery is polluted may be more information than you want, or need, to know.
But panic not. There are many ways to detox a nursery, particularly if you're still at the renovation stage. Some of the methods below require more effort and cash. Others are cheap and easy. Read on for some basic tips, based on information from the WECF website.
Renovating? Choose non-toxic materials...
It's advisable to have all the work done at least 2 weeks prior to the arrival of the baby.
- Floor: As a general rule, choose natural fibre carpets and rugs made from organic wool or cotton, coir or jute, instead of synthetic carpets (typically made of nylon or polyester), though check they haven't been treated with unnecessary chemicals or glues (see healthyflooring.org for suppliers). Avoid toxic carpet cleaners - use a steam cleaner instead and wash rugs regularly. Take off your shoes to avoid bringing in keep dirt and bacteria from the streets. FSC-certified wood flooring treated with non-toxic and natural oils and waxes is another option.
- Walls: Choose low- or no-VOC paint as well as natural pigments if possible. While painting, all rooms should be well ventilated. If you're going for wallpaper WCEF says wood chip wallpaper is 'breathable' and doesn't have a negative impact on air quality. It's durable, keeps for many years and can be painted over often. Otherwise it recommends wallpaper from recycled paper. Apply with normal cellulose paste.
- Curtains: Use natural materials such as wool, cotton, linen or silk. Wash and air the curtains before hanging them up - even natural fibres are treated with substances, for instance, to make them moth resistant.
Let the fresh air in
Get rid of old air (and reduce the concentration of unwanted chemicals and pathogens) by opening the window. Regular 'airing' of the room is best - three times a day if possible.
Choose cleaning products that are made from natural plant and mineral ingredients. Use cleaning cloths made of micro fibre that only need a little cleaning agent or none at all.
Trust your nose
If something (a mattress, toy or piece of furniture) smells bad after you've bought it, it's probably still off-gassing. Remove it from the room and leave it in the fresh air or an unused room for about two weeks before using it - or take it back and ask for a refund.
Living, green plants can remove toxic chemicals including formaldehyde, benzene and carbon monoxide from the air, according to a two-year study by NASA scientists. The following plants are particularly effective: areca palm, lady palm, rubber plant, dragon plant, English ivy, peace lily, gerbera daisy, snake plant, spider plant, weeping fig.
As well as being tough, sturdy and functional, make sure furniture is non-toxic. Solid wood, treated with non-toxic varnish, oil or wax is best. Avoid chipboard wood (made using formaldehyde) or furniture plastic or a plastic coating as they may contain harmful softeners.
Choose a mattress made from natural materials. There are various suppliers - Abaca, based in Wales, makes mattresses from natural coir (coconut husk) layered with organic Welsh wool and covered with organic cotton. All products meet relevant British standards and fire regulations without chemical additives. Green Baby also sells natural mattresses on their website.
Choose durable toys made of natural and non-toxic materials such as FSC wood, hemp and cotton. With wood make sure they use non toxic dyes and natural oil finishes. Avoid PVC plastic which may contain phthalates, the suspected hormone-disruptors that have been linked to liver and kidney damage.
To find out more about air quality and health click here
If you're interested in participating in the Nesting project fill in the online questionnaire at www.projectnesting.org
A useful guide to green parenting is Healthy, Happy Baby: The essential guide to raising a toxin-free baby by Pat Thomas (£7.99, Rodale)
Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living editor
For ethical and sustainable suppliers of baby and child products and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here
Breastmilk vs 'formula' food
Humans have been breastfeeding for nearly half a million years. It’s only in the last 60 years that we have begun to give babies highly processed convenience food called ‘formula’. Pat Thomas investigates
FSA ‘ignoring’ evidence on baby bottle chemical bisphenol-A
Health campaigners say suspected hormone disrupter should be banned in baby bottles food and drink containers
Behind the Label: Calpol
The season of flu (and fear of swine flu) is upon us. But before you reach for this sticky pink cocktail dished out by doctors and parents as a cure-all for children, think again...
How to raise a green baby on a budget
Limited funds and a concern for the environment don’t have to be incompatible when it comes to raising a child. Anna Shepard shows how.
Do you want the best for your baby, but don’t want to harm the environment? Then use reusable nappies. Contrary to popular belief, modern reusables are cheaper and more hygienic than disposables, and you won't have to spend hours cleaning them.