Tips for Creating a Green Nursery

When you're expecting a baby, you want a nursery that's beautiful, welcoming and soothing. But you also want to create a place that's safe for your child to breathe and play. Many building supplies and home furnishings contain chemicals that can be harmful when ingested or inhaled.

"Children are like canaries in the coal mine," says Maggie Wood of Maggie Wood Design, a New York-based design and consulting firm focused exclusively on green residential and commercial design. "They're the ones who will be affected by much lower levels of toxins and chemicals. If you make one room in the house green, make it your children's room."

Wood recommends planning a baby's room early — even before the mother is pregnant. "The last thing you want is to be renovating or remodeling when you're pregnant, especially if the job involves taking out walls, pulling up carpeting and painting. Those are exposures you want to avoid."

Paint

It's natural to want to paint the walls of your child's nursery, but most conventional paints emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be dangerous for pregnant women and babies. Many big paint companies have come out with low-VOC products, such as Benjamin Moore's Eco Spec and Sherwin Williams' HealthSpec, but Wood recommends spending a little extra for zero-VOC paint products made by such green paint companies as Yolo Colorhouse, Bioshield, and Milkpaint. "If you're going to splurge on something, splurge on paint," Wood says. "It's important to get the best."

Mattresses

Most conventional crib mattresses are made of synthetic materials, including polyurethane foam, and contain potentially toxic chemicals, such as polyvinyl chloride, boric acid and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Some doctors and health officials have begun to question the effect such chemicals have on babies, who may breathe them in for 10 to 14 hours per day as they sleep.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. A few companies, including Lifekind, NaturePedic, the Organic Mattress Store and the Natural Sleep Store, now sell non-toxic mattresses made of cotton and other natural materials.

Bedding

There are plenty of crib sheets and blankets out there with cute designs, but many of them also use potentially harmful chemicals and dyes. For environmentally sensitive products, look for 100 percent organic cotton. Two yards (about one blanket set) of organically grown fabric saves about one pound of pesticides from polluting the earth, according to Little Merry Fellows, a Connecticut-based company that makes organic cotton blankets, crib sheets, receiving blankets and other products. 

Furniture

Steer clear of furniture made from laminated wood, pressed wood, chipboard or particle board, which are made with formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Instead, choose furniture made from solid hard wood painted with eco-friendly paint or finishers. Or buy unfinished furniture and coat it yourself with a water-based polyurethane sealer.

"I always tell people to go to garage sales for baby furniture," says Wood. "Those are the best places to find hard wood furniture at a good price." Keep in mind, though, that antique furniture — including that beloved crib or bassinet that's been in the family for generations — may be finished with lead-based paint or may not meet current safety standards. For more information about cribs consult the Consumer Product Safety Commission's Crib Safety Tips.

Flooring and floor coverings

The backing on new wall-to-wall carpeting may also emit formaldehyde and many carpeting materials are treated with stain-proofing chemicals, moth-proofing pesticides and other potentially toxic substances.

"A lot of carpeting and upholstered furniture is treated with Teflon and Scotchguard, which sounds like a good idea when you have kids," says Wood. "But they're neurotoxins. You want to stay away from anything that says ‘stain-resistant' or ‘stainproof.'" Instead of wall-to-wall carpeting, choose washable area rugs made of natural fibers like cotton, jute or wool.

Wood floors can be refinished with a product low in volatile organic compounds, such as AFM Safecoat's Polyureseal BP. True linoleum, which is made of all-natural materials, including sawdust, linseed oils, pigments, pine rosin and pine flour, may be a good choice for a nursery because it's soft and easy to clean and can be found in a wide variety of colors. Cork, available in tiles and planks, is another eco-friendly choice.

For manufacturers of other eco-friendly furniture and baby products consult the National Green Pages, a directory of green businesses screened and approved by Co-op America, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating a socially just and environmentally sustainable society.

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