Creating a Safe, Healthy Room for Your Child
The emerging medical science of pediatric environmental health is finding that children are more susceptible to environmental hazards than adults. You can reduce the risks your children face with careful attention to their nursery’s design, materials, and maintenance.
Common Household Hazards
Newborns, infants, and toddlers are particularly susceptible to many toxic compounds. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children are exposed to higher concentrations of pollutants because they breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food in proportion to body weight than adults do; their skin is more permeable to certain toxins; they are exposed to pollutants on the floor as they learn to crawl and play; and they often explore new objects by putting them in their mouths.
“Old lead paint is a most important issue to be aware of during renovation, since it can harm the developing brain of a young child and even get into the blood of an unborn child,” cautions Mary Landrigan, author of Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World: 101 Smart Solutions for Every Family and director of health education and information for the Westchester County (New York) Department of Health.
Commonly found toxicants in the nursery include lead, pesticides tracked in on shoes, mold, pet dander, and allergens. Also harmful are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as formaldehyde emitted by paint and many other building materials, and flame retardants on fabrics and mattresses known as PBDEs.
PBDEs are classified as (SVOCs), which are slowly released from products and adhere to dust that is inhaled. Laboratory tests have shown that PBDEs can cause nervous system and brain development problems even at low concentrations with long-term exposure.
“Most people think that if an environment is free of odors from VOCs, it’s chemical free, but many materials contain toxic SVOCs we can’t smell,” says Mary Cordaro, an environmental consultant and founder of Mary Cordaro, Inc. “In the nursery, these include vinyl wallpaper and window treatments, foam carpet padding, upholstered items made with polyurethane foam, and pesticide-treated wool carpeting. After these products stop outgassing VOCs, they continue to contaminate the nursery with SVOCs at higher and higher levels over time.”
To create an environment that supports your children’s safe development, follow these guidelines on preparing a room for the arrival of a new child.
When choosing the nursery room, keep the amount of light and noise in mind; it’s easier to create the proper environment in a quieter room that doesn’t face the street and gets little direct sunlight. Fresh air; protection from moisture, mold and other allergens; and proper light and noise levels should be the design priorities.
The nursery should be designed to flush out airborne contaminants and prevent excessive moisture in the air, which can facilitate the growth of allergenic mold, according to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
We recommend window or ceiling fans to move air through the nursery—one fan bringing fresh air into the room and another exhausting room air out a window is ideal, according to Cordaro. Fans should be small and quiet enough to be left on all the time without creating drafts, especially if there are new materials in the room. Consider Energy Star fans to save on energy bills and reduce pollution associated with electricity generation.
Unless your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system (HVAC) has been retrofitted so that the ducts are airtight and clean, and the system brings in filtered fresh air, keep a window cracked in the nursery when you are heating or cooling, and don’t overheat or overcool the room.
Lighting and Noise
Excessive light or noise can interfere with a child’s sensory development.
Children have less skin melanin and fewer functional sweat glands, and ultraviolet (UV) light is harmful to their developing eyes. Indirect sunlight is the best option for room lighting since it provides light in the full visible spectrum and saves electricity. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants less than six months old be kept out of direct sunlight. We recommend blinds or louvers as window treatments since they shut out more light and noise and are more easily cleaned in place. Aluminum slats or wooden slats that are untreated or are finished with water-based coatings are preferable to vinyl slats, which may offgas SVOCs. We do not recommend fabric curtains because they may offgas VOCs or PBDEs and can absorb pollutants and attract dust, making them harder to clean and more likely to negatively affect air quality. They also tend to block less light.
Children’s hearing may be damaged by prolonged exposure to sounds above 80 to 90 decibels (dB), which is approximately the level of a telephone ringing, according to the AAP. The AAP recommends noise levels below 45 dB during the day (equivalent to light traffic) and below 30 dB while a child is sleeping (equivalent to whispering).
Appliances and Wiring
Electrical appliances, wiring, and outdoor power lines generate electromagnetic fields (EMFs), which have been correlated with negative health effects in many large-scale studies. The scientific community is divided on the health risks of EMFs, but we encourage precautions: limit the number of appliances in the nursery, keep electrical appliances and cords as far from the child’s crib as possible, keep the baby monitor at its farthest effective range from the child, and choose a room for the nursery that does not have an electrical service panel on an interior or exterior wall.
Materials typically found in a child’s nursery can endanger your child’s health and degrade the quality of their environment. The carpet your baby crawls on absorbs dust mites, lead dust, pesticides, pathogens, allergens, and many other airborne and tracked-in compounds from the day it is installed. Carpets and padding are likely to be made of synthetic materials and chemicals that can harm your baby, such as PBDEs and adhesives that outgas VOCs. Paints can contain high levels of VOCs and toxins and biocides that can get into the air or on the floor as the paint slowly wears down. Many new cribs are made of plywood or other pressed-wood products that emit formaldehyde and other VOCs from their adhesives, and older secondhand cribs could be coated with lead paint. And to meet stringent flame-retardant regulations, mattresses typically are treated with PBDEs or other chlorinated or brominated organophosphates, many of which have been banned in Europe because of their health effects.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce or avoid all these problems.
Carpet and Flooring
We recommend against installing carpet, but if it is already in place, it’s better to clean it thoroughly and frequently than to pull it up, since removal may kick up the very particles you’re trying to avoid. For new area rugs, look for natural, preferably organic cotton and wool fibers that use vegetable-based dyes with minimal additives (such as stain or insect repellents) and no backing. Carpet pads of untreated goat or camel hair are preferable, and carpet tacks or water-based adhesives are safer than conventional adhesives. The Green Guide’s Carpets Buying Guide includes an overview of the environmental concerns and a product comparison chart.
Similarly, cleaning and preparing the hard flooring already in place is better than replacing it in most instances. If you do need to replace the existing floor, wood, linoleum, and cork flooring can all come from renewable or reclaimed sources, naturally emit low or no harmful compounds, can be waterproofed with nontoxic sealers, and can be easily cleaned. See Green Home Guide’s Green Flooring Know-How section for more information and advice from professionals.
Cribs and Bedding
Cribs made of solid wood from sustainably managed forests, such as those certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, are preferable. Wooden cribs should be sealed with a water-based sealer or treated with a natural oil finish to help preserve them. Uncoated plywood cribs that are a few years old usually have outgassed most of their VOCs, but you should seal them so that children cannot get adhesives in their mouths. Painted secondhand or antique cribs may have a coating of lead paint if they were produced before 1978, so these are best avoided. Read Green Home Guide’s "Buyer’s Guide to Clear Finishes" and "Buyer’s Guide to Stains" for more information on safe, nontoxic finishes for a crib.
We recommend a mattress that uses wool as a flame-retarding layer instead of PBDEs. Organic wool, organic cotton, and 100 percent natural latex make healthy bedding alternatives, though they are more expensive. See "Rest Easy on a Safe Bed," an article on the Healthy Child Healthy World website, for a comprehensive description of the issues. Green home consultant Debra Lynn Dadd recommends a number of organic mattress makers on her website. Cordaro, who has been developing a line of organic bedding, points out that organic wool bedding insulates very well and regulates body temperature by wicking away excess moisture.
Be sure to select a no- or low-VOC latex or natural paint that includes no- or low-VOC pigments. Lighter hues contain fewer VOCs because they use less pigment, and they have the added benefit of distributing natural light around the room. See Green Home Guide’s "Selecting Green Paint" for more information on choosing and using green paint.
Lead paint and mold are two particularly important dangers that should be addressed during the remodeling process. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, over 80 percent of all housing in the United States built before 1978 contains some lead-based paint on the interior or exterior. (The federal government banned lead-based paint from housing in 1978.) Mold can be present within walls and in attics or crawl spaces, and should be eliminated so that it does not get into the nursery’s air.
Renovations involving surfaces with lead-based paint will release lead dust unless properly handled. Lead removal should be handled by a professional; see the National Lead Information Center website for the proper steps to take.
In addition, Landrigan cautions, “construction should take place as long before your child is born as possible so that pregnant women are not exposed to lead, VOCs, allergens, and other materials generated during renovation.” We recommend that pregnant women not participate in the construction process.
Indoor air quality researcher Al Hodgson recommends that homeowners maximize ventilation to reduce chemical exposures from painting. He suggests opening windows and exterior doors and using an auxiliary fan placed in at least one window with the fan blowing outward at maximum speed.
If you can see or smell mold, you likely have a problem and should take steps to remove it. The California Department of Health Services has published an info sheet with guidelines on prevention, detection, and cleaning of mold-contaminated materials.
If you will be removing carpet, Mary Cordaro recommends sealing off the room from the rest of the house, sealing all heating/air conditioning registers in the room, bagging and sealing up the carpet and removing it from the room, and then hiring a mold abatement company to deep-clean the room.
Maintenance and Use
The nursery can get dirty quickly. Allergens, dust, dander, and other particles can build up on surfaces; air can get stuffy and increase concentrations of indoor pollutants; and wet clothes and surfaces can breed mold. Your child’s first ventures out of the crib will likely involve crawling and playing on the floor and putting objects in his or her mouth.
To reduce the dirt and pollutants entering your home, leave shoes at the front door. Use nontoxic surface cleaners as often as necessary. Hard flooring is easier to keep clean than carpets, which should be cleaned with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter–equipped vacuum twice a week. Look for nontoxic carpet-cleaning products. Dadd describes how she’s been cleaning her house without toxic chemicals for more than 25 years in this article.
If you do not have fans, and smog and pollen are not problems, open the windows at least twice a day for 15 minutes at a time to help flush out stuffy air (but if it’s cold outside, make sure the child is not in the room or is dressed appropriately). It is not possible to have too much clean air circulating as long as it does not affect the baby’s temperature and the humidity.
Do not use spray deodorizers to mask smells; they are often sources of VOCs and SVOCs from fragrances and chemical biocides. Instead, go for the root of the problem, keeping potential sources of toxins or bacteria, such as dirty diapers, out of the room. For natural substances that will improve the room’s smell, check out Healthy Child Healthy World’s air freshening tips. You may also want to consider using a HEPA air cleaner to remove allergens, dust, particulates, and SVOCs from the air.
To prevent mold, do not allow anything damp to remain in the room for long. For example, wash and dry bedding if it becomes wet or soiled and don’t let wet clothes sit in a hamper. Airing the room often and using a good fan will help. Removing the source of mold is better than simply ventilating a room.
Don’t use a humidifier. Dry air is usually due to overheating, so first try turning down the heat a bit. Humidifiers often generate so much moisture that carpets and fabrics are unable to dry out before mold forms, and most humidifiers do not heat the water enough to kill disease-causing bacteria that can breed in the appliance.
Dust and clean fan blades, windows, blinds, drapes, or anything else that accumulates dust that could impact air quality, since SVOC chemicals stick to dust. In addition to eliminating the sources of SVOCs, HEPA vacuuming and using room HEPA air filters are the best ways to control contaminated dust.
Green Home Guide’s Paint and Coatings Know How
Our articles on paint, stains, and clear coatings will help you learn more about the environmental and health effects of these materials on your nursery renovation.
Healthy Child Healthy World
Provides information on children’s exposure to toxic substances at home, in schools, and in communities.
Children’s Environmental Health Network
A national organization whose goals are to protect children from environmental health hazards and promote a healthy environment.
The EPA’s National Lead Information Center
Provides information on lead in the home, especially in paint, and its safe removal.
Safer Products Project
Offers advice and recommendations on safer products for the home.
Green Home Guide Staff