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 other 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 semivolatile organic compounds (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. “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.
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 of 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 (HVAC) system 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, because 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. Blinds or louvers work well 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 off-gas SVOCs. Fabric curtains may off-gas 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.
Focus on providing flooring that is nontoxic, and think about how other materials your child comes into contact with can be baby-friendly—such as using a wool mattress.
Green Home Guide’s article on selecting green paint
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.