Our babies are born with a chemical body burden.
The Environmental Working Group (“EWG”) found that umbilical cord blood from ten randomly selected babies contained 287 chemicals of the 413 for which tests were performed. Of those 287 chemicals, 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 218 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.
This potential chemical body burden in a newborn baby is scary for new parents. It was scary for me. You welcome your child to the world, and already you feel as if you have failed. Your womb has not protected your baby from lead, mercury, flame retardants, DDT, pesticides and a host of other chemicals. If you can’t protect your child while you are pregnant, how can you protect him out in the world?
And in our easy care, easy care, disposable Teflon existence, babies are exposed to potentially toxic chemicals. They inhale them, they ingest them, and they are exposed to them through their skin. Babies are exposed to more toxic chemicals than adults on a body weight basis. Infants consume more food on a body weight basis, have a larger skin surface area in relation to body weight, have a different body composition, and greater intake of air per unit body weight. Plus, they experience rapid growth not seen in later life. Many of their systems are immature when born, including their immune system, which may mean they are less able to handle any toxic chemical invaders. Plus, babies engage in behavior more likely to expose them to toxic chemicals – from putting everything in their mouths to rolling around on the floor.
So what can you do to protect them? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have 6 simple steps to reduce chemical exposures in the nursery.
- Keep the lead out. Lead paint and lead contaminated household dust can expose your baby. Lead is a neurotoxin, and can lead to a host of adverse health effects, including decreased IQ and attention deficits. If your home was built before 1978, it may have lead based paint. So, if it was constructed before 1978, do not do anything to disturb the lead based paint without taking appropriate precautions. Despite your urge to nest, no sanding, no stripping, no destructive remodeling. But, if you have peeling paint, you do need to take care of it. It has been estimated that a child’s blood lead level can be elevated by ingesting a staple size lead paint flake. However, if it is in good condition, most agencies recommend you leave it in place, but take care around friction surfaces – those painted surfaces that rub together, like windows. In these areas, wet wipe religiously. Daily if you can. And wet wiping is a must – dry dusting does not remove the sticky, fine lead dust. Use warm water and a general all purpose cleaner or a cleaner made specifically for lead. For more information on the risk of lead exposure, read here.
- Use non-toxic paints or wall coverings. Paints and coatings contribute to air pollution. They off gas volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) during and well after application. VOCs are a class of compounds, and include carcinogens, irritants, allergens, and mutagens (mutate DNA). VOCs also contribute to the formation of ground level smog. Concentrations of VOCs are consistently higher indoors than outdoors, usually 2 to 5 times higher, but some VOC concentrations up to 10 times higher indoors. The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) reports that paints, stains and other architectural coatings are the second largest source of VOC emissions after automobiles. Low and no VOC paints are usually greener – having fewer VOCs and less likely to contribute to the formation of smog - but not always less toxic. You need to get specific information about the ingredients. Look for the Green Seal certification, which means that the paint is free of a host of chemicals. Choosing natural paints is often a good option, but always check the label.
- Use non-toxic flooring coverings. New carpets can emit high levels of VOCs. Synthetic carpets can off gas more than 150 chemicals. And many are treated with stain repellents – usually perfluorinated compounds that are linked with cancer, physical development delays, and neonatal mortality and are endocrine disruptors. Old carpets can harbor a host of pollutants – lead, DDT, pesticides – and have been associated with trapping asthma-triggers. Vinyl flooring is made with polyvinyl chloride, and contain phthalates. Vinyl flooring has been linked with increased incidence of asthma. Wood flooring can be treated with toxic finishes and may contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Whatever your decorating scheme, seek out less toxic products – a natural fiber rug free of flame retardants and stain repellents – think cotton, jute, hemp or wool (just make sure it isn’t treated with moth repellent); wood treated with a water based coating and applied with a non-toxic adhesive; or even try some of the newer options, such as true linoleum or cork.
- Pick a mattress free of halogenated flame retardants. Halogenated flame retardants can disrupt brain growth and alter estrogen hormones in laboratory animals. Babies can be exposed to halogenated flame retardants in their mattresses. Plus, mattresses made of polyurethane foam can off-gas a host of other chemicals. So, choose a mattress free of these chemicals – look for organic wool and organic cotton (naturally flame retardant) – and one that meets the flammability standard without the addition of a halogenated flame retardant.
- Choose furniture free of formaldehyde. When buying new furniture, look for wood that is from sustainably managed forests to be green, but also look for wood treated with water based finishes to reduce the off gassing of VOCs. Also, make sure that the furniture does not off gas formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen. Formaldehyde-based glues are used to make composite wood products. And at least one study has shown that baby furniture such as cribs and changing tables can off gas significant quantities of VOCs. So, skip furniture made from composite wood or look for formaldehyde-free composite wood products. The GreenGuard certification is a good indicator for low to no formaldehyde emissions.
- Skip PVC. Polyvinyl chloride (“PVC”) is bad for the environment – from manufacturing to disposal. It is also bad for your baby. PVC is often stabilized with lead, and the lead can migrate to the product’s surface where it is available for pick up by your baby. Plus, PVC is made soft and flexible with the addition of phthalates – and phthalates are endocrine disruptors. So, from diaper changing covers to mattress covers to rubber duckies and other soft flexible toys and teethers, skip PVC. For more tips on which products are likely to contain or be made of PVC, go here.
An original 5 Minutes for Going Green post.