How Green is Your Family?
A savvy mom-to-be knows her body is her baby’s first environment, and she wants to make it a safe one. Any smart parent wants to create and keep a healthy home environment for the entire family.
Here’s how to sort out the science and make choices that count.
The Green Pregnancy
8 Ways to Go Green Before Starting a Family
If there’s ever a better time to go green than when you’re pregnant, it’s when you’re trying to get pregnant. Here are 7 ways to get started going green to make your baby’s first environment (your body!) as safe as possible.
1. Test your home for toxins
If your house is harboring lead paint, radon, or other toxic chemicals, you want to find out now so you can do something about it before you get pregnant. Check your city or county websites for resources.
A tip from the authors of The Complete Organic Pregnancy: if you don’t already have a carbon monoxide monitor, get one.
2. Test your water for toxins
Don’t think there’s any danger in your tap water? (Read What’s In Your Tap Water.) Think again.
To find out how to test your water, call the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791), or you can do it yourself with a Watersafe Drinking Water Testing Kit ($17, www.watersafetestkits.com).
Then consider putting in a high-quality water filter that will remove lead, chlorine, mercury and other chemicals.
3. Toss toxic pots and dishes
Avoid nuking your food in plastics unless you’re sure it’s microwave safe. And avoid plastics for any kitchen purpose unless it’s labeled #2, #4, #5 plastic. Glass is always a better choice for heating up foods.
Better options for oven and stove cooking: cast iron, stainless steel, glass and lead-free ceramic. Also see: Should You Ban your Teflon Pan?
4. Give your cosmetics drawer a makeover
Replace old, possibly contaminated cosmetics and personal care products with green and clean alternatives.
Research shows nail polish and remover can be especially toxic and even interfere with fertility and cause birth defects, so consider a natural manicure, or try using less toxic nail products.
5. Clean out your cleaning closet
A report called the Cabinet Confidential found cleaners like Lysol cleaner (the one in the brown bottle) contained glycols. In animal studies, glycols have been shown to cause fetal damage. Prolonged exposure in humans can cause brain damage.
Replace these toxic cleaning products with safer alternatives. Or if you must use them, at the very least wear rubber gloves and use in a well-ventilated area. (Read The Dirt on Cleaners.)
6. Opt for organic garden supplies
Toss conventional pest sprays and fertilizers, even if you’re not doing the gardening. An enourmous amout of potentially harmful chemicals gets blown in or tracked in from the yard to the house.
You can find eco-friendly fertilizers and pest control (read my article The Urban Garden) even at conventional stores like Home Depot.
7. Audit your home furnishings
Get rid of the biggest offenders and replace them with natural nontoxic furniture.
8. Clean up your eating
Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables are closer to nature than processed foods and meats.
If you can’t buy all organic, choose from the list of least and most contaminated fruites and vegetables.
Get the chemicals out of your drinking glass, too, by drinking pure water with a squeeze of lemon. Water is a much fresher way to rehydrate than soda with aspertame, splenda, and caffeine, or juices that contain artificial colors and flavors.
Prepare to cut down on alcohol, too. (I know, I know!). Filtered water is best.
The Natural Nursery
A Safer Bed for your Eco-Baby’s Sweet Head
Organic crib mattresses, chemical free baby sheets and bedding, are they worth all the fuss? Buying a crib mattress is one of the biggest decisions couples make when they begin planning a baby nursery.
If you’re going green in general, no doubt you’re particularly interested in making the place where your new baby will sleep as pure and natural as possible.
Although synthetic crib mattresses are reportedly safe in general, they do contain chemicals eco-conscious parents might want to avoid, flame-retardant chemicals.
For example, which sound like a good idea until you read the research and find out they contain PDBEs that can harm your child’s health.
One of the chemicals you definitely want to watch out for is PBDEs (polybrominated diphenylethers).
Several new animal studies suggest that a common flame retardant (deca-PBDE) used in carpets and upholstery can impair a baby’s developing central nervous system and brain.
PBDEs can cross the placenta, transfer through breast milk and get absorbed from the gases that vaporize from household products. The effects depend on the amount of exposure over time.
Conventional cotton bedding most likely contain pesticides, since more pesticides are used to grow cotton than almost any other crop. To lessen the toxic load, consider buying an organic baby mattress and bedding.
Many companies now sell beautiful organic products that are free of formaldehyde, dioxins, fire retardants, pesticides and synthetic petrochemicals. Each potential toxin you eliminate is a baby step toward better health.
The good news is more and more companies are selling products with an organic or eco-friendly label. But reading and comparing crib mattress labels can be confusing. So far there isn’t much regulation of label claims on mattresses either, so the claim you read on different mattresses may mean different things, depending on the manufacturer.
Other toxins to avoid are the formaldehyde, dioxins often found in conventional bedding.
Low Impact Linens
When you live with kids, you need all the sleep you can get. Thinking about toxic chemicals in your bed linens won’t keep you up nights — if you go organic.
To minimize toxins: “Sheets shouldn’t be permanent-press or made with nylon or synthetic materials,” say Deirdre Dolan and Alexandra Zissu, co-authors of The Complete Organic Pregnancy. The manufacture of conventional cotton sheets requires large amounts of formaldehyde, bleaches, dyes, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Launder linens with nontoxic laundry products, such as Seventh Generation Baby Laundry Liquid and Chlorine-Free Bleach. “Many families use separate laundry soap for their newborn’s clothing, but you can use baby-safe laundry soap for the rest of your family’s laundry as well,” says Kimberly Rider, author of Organic Baby: Simple Steps for Healthy Living.
If you buy only one thing for the nursery, make it an organic mattress pad or cover, advises Rider.
Replace worn-out linens with organic-cotton varieties, which are now widely available and more affordable than ever. Cotton grown in the U.S. uses 25 percent of the insecticides in the world, so going organic will lighten the toxic load on your pillow and the planet.
Reuse and recycle natural-fabric baby linens from friends and family and you will help reduce the huge amounts of water used to manufacture new fabric.
“The fabric finishes will have been mostly laundered off, so they are less likely to emit fumes or be laden with toxic coatings,” Rider says. When it’s time to replace linens, buy from companies with responsible manufacturing practices.
Take a primer on paint
Does it matter which paint you use when you’re pregnant? The truth is you shouldn’t be painting at all. But even if you have someone else do the painting, the less toxic the product is, the better.
“Oil-based paints pose a theoretical risk of exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) while the paint is drying,” says Robert Geller, M.D., medical toxicologist and associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Latex paint has very low toxicity but poses a slight risk if used extensively in a poorly ventilated area.
If you’re doing the painting, open the windows or run a fan and take frequent breaks; if you are using oil-based paint, wear a protective mask specifically recommended by the manufacturer to protect against paint fumes.
If you’re doing extensive painting, use a nontoxic, non-VOC- or low-VOC-containing paint, or ask someone else to paint the nursery for you and stay out of the house while the paint dries and the fumes dissipate.
Most major paint manufacturers offer low- or non-VOC water-based paints. Some companies manufacture milk paints, made from the milk protein casein, lime and naturally occurring mineral pigments.
Two eco-friendly paints to try:
The American Pregnancy Association recommends artists choose water colors, acrylic and tempera paints over oil paints, and avoid latex paints that contain solvents such as ethylene glycol, ethers and biocides.
Was your house built before 1978?
If you live in a house that was built before 1978, the walls may still contain lead-based paint. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends contacting a certified lead abatement contractor before removing old paint, or someone in your household can test for lead dust using a lead test kit. If you’re pregnant, leave the house while someone else does the peeling, stripping and painting, and don’t return until the room has been well ventilated.
Fresh and Natural Furniture
On of the greenest choices in furniture is recycling furniture from somewhere else — your grandmother or that cute little antique store downtown. That way you’ll help reduce the environmental load in landfills and your bank account.
Be careful, though, because family heirlooms, such as antique rocking chairs or cribs, won’t meet current safety standards if they were finished with lead-based paint. Furniture designed especially for babies after the 1970s shouldn’t pose a toxic hazard even if a child chews on it.
But newly installed unfinished plywood or particleboard can produce formaldehyde vapors, so cover the exposed wood with a low- or non-VOC finish or sealer such as AFM Naturals Oil Wax Finish or Safecoat DuroStain.
If you’re in the market for new furniture, eco-friendly options include furniture made from environmentally safe recycled stainless steel, bamboo, hemp, cork, reclaimed wood, and all natural teak wood grown and harvested through environmentally friendly methods, to name a few.
Look for pieces that use non-toxic glues and water-based paints and furniture stains. The fewer chemicals used, the more eco-friendly.
For wood furniture, choose pieces that are renewable or reclaimed. Many manufacturers plant new trees to replace the trees that are cut down to make furniture. Look for pieces that have FTC certification (Forest Stewardship Council).
For upholstered pieces, avoid petroleum based foams in seat cushions. Environmentally safer alternatives include organic cottons, hemp, jute, wool, and even upholstery woven from recycled plastic bottles.
Don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of attractive, fun, and affordable pieces made from pregnant- mom and baby safe and Mother Earch friendly materials.
New carpet can emit harmful chemicals from carpet fibers, backing material and adhesives, dyes and fire retardants. If you’re buying new carpeting, ask the installer to air out the rolls for 24 hours before installation.
Open the windows for ventilation and, if possible, stay out of the room until the air clears (48 to 72 hours after installation).
Look for carpets that carry the Green Label Plus logo, which identifies products with low VOC emissions.
Get naturally floored with these 8 eco-flooring options.
- Reclaimed natural wood
- Natural linoleum
- Recycled glass tile
- Reclaimed stone tile
- All-natural wool
- Jute or sisal carpeting
Pure Personal Care
The gentlest, most natural body-care products and cosmetics benefit not only new moms but also Mother Earth, by lowering the amount of toxic chemicals that end up in the air, soil and groundwater.
But more than 99 percent of all personal care products contain one or more ingredients that have never been safety tested or regulated, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Many (such as shampoos, lotions, soaps and deodorants) are known to contain potentially harmful petrochemicals known as phthalates, which are linked to permanent birth defects of the male reproductive system.
“The sad truth is that virtually all of us are regularly exposed to low levels of phthalates,” says Shanna H. Swan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester.
“But we can avoid at least some of these exposures until the use of these chemicals in everyday materials and products is more aggressively restricted.”
Keep your hair and nail color natural. “The solvents in most fingernail polishes are of particular concern to pregnant women,” says Bruce P. Lanphear, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Environmental Health Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and professor of pediatrics and environmental health at the University of Cincinnati.
“The chemicals in many cosmetics and other personal-care products have not been universally tested to make sure they don’t cause adverse consequences-particularly in a developing child,” adds Lanphear, who recommends avoiding any chemical you possibly can, especially during pregnancy.
If you still want to polish your nails while you’re expecting, some brands are safe to use: Zoya products are free of toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate; Acquerella is a nontoxic, water-based line of nail polishes, polish removers and moisturizers.
Nontoxic hair color choices include Tints of Nature, a permanent hair color made with certified organic ingredients, and Surya Henna Cream, a nonpermanent hair color containing natural, organic herb and fruit ingredients and lacking ammonia, heavy metals or parabens.
Choose fragrance-free products, which may lessen your exposure to phthalates. Manufacturers aren’t required to list these chemicals individually, but they’re often hidden in the word fragrance on the label. And use caution with cosmetics from other countries.
“Some, such as kohl, have been found to contain lead,” says Mark Miller, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Unit at the University of California, San Francisco. Over time, lead exposure can cause irreversible neurological damage.
Other good options in personal-care products include California Baby’s Calming Baby Shampoo and Body Wash, Origins A Perfect World Antioxidant Moisturizer with White Tea, and the entire All-Sensitive line from Aveda.
Make your own products with Organic Body Care Recipes. Fill reusable containers with eco-friendly and economical shampoos and lotions that are available in bulk at natural-food stores such as New Seasons Market and Whole Foods Market.
Or choose products that come in recycled or recyclable packaging, such as those from Aubrey Organics (I love their Natural Baby Body Lotion), Aura Cacia (great Calming Baby Oil Certified Organic) and Burt’s Bees.
Should You Eat Organic?
Some research shows that organic foods (those grown without pesticides and antibiotics) are not nutritionally superior to those produced conventionally.
But a University of California, Davis, study of organic berries and corn found that they contained 60 percent more antioxidants than their nonorganic counterparts.
Regardless, eating organic at least some of the time is a great way to minimize pesticide intake.
A great resource for what to eat when you’re pregnant is The Green Pregnancy Diet: Healthy eating for mommy, baby and the planet. Author Radha McLean gives easy suggestions for greening up your eating habits while maintaining your optimal prenatal nutrition.
The book also gives more than 20 easy, tasty and healthy recipes that are not only green and nutritious, they satisfy your food cravings. And do I remember those. When I was pregnant the first time, I craved oatmeal raison cookies. (Now they’re my son’s favorite food!).
Here’s a handy list to take with you when you shop, from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, DC-based organization that publishes reports on threats to human health and the environment.
It tells which fruits and veggies have the most and least pesticides when grown conventionally. So if you can only buy a few organic foods, choose from the “most contaminated” list.
MOST CONTAMINATED (the dirty dozen)
You may have heard of the controversy over the chemicals in some kitchen storage containers, children’s toys, and plastic baby bottles. Government regulators assure us these products are safe, even for pregnant women and infants.
But concerned scientists and environmental groups disagree, citing years of disturbing results from research conducted on lab animals.
We can’t tell from animal studies exactly how exposure at different times during pregnancy affects a developing human fetus, but these chemicals may impact health at much lower exposure levels than previously believed, if the effects seen in animal studies also occur in humans,” says Tom Natan, Ph.D., research director for the National Environmental Trust.
“We certainly don’t want to imply that there’s danger lurking in every plastic container, but it makes sense to protect yourself,” he adds. Until the experts sort out the potential problems, Natan recommends making a few simple changes to your normal routine. Here are some pointers for using plastic safely:
1. Look for toys and furniture that don’t contain polyvinylchloride (PVC) #3.
These may contain plasticizers called diisononyl phthalates (DINP) shown to cause birth defects, cancer and organ damage in mice. New PVC products often have a strong odor; if it smells like a new shower curtain, it’s probably PVC. Toss the vinyl shower curtain and check out this safer versions.
2. To sidestep the plastic toy problem, many green companies are making toys in the old classic style out of natural materials.
Big companies like Gerber and Little Tikes make a few safe toys, but you have to check the labels very carefully or know what to ask.
3. Microwave foods only in glass or microwave-safe plastic containers.
“Microwave formula in a glass measuring cup and pour it into the plastic bottle after it cools,” Natan says. Today’s plastic wraps such as Glad Cling Wrap, Saran Wrap and Ziploc Storage Bags are said to be safe, but Natan recommends glass food covers when microwaving.
“The problem isn’t chemicals leaching out, but the plastic itself melting into the food at high temperatures,” he says. You don’t want to take any more chances than necessary, especially when you’re pregnant.
4. Look for the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) identification code stamped on products (a number inside a triangle with chasing arrows).
Choose baby bottles made with polyethylene (#2 or #4) or polypropylene (#5). For information on products that don’t have these numbers, call the manufacturer’s toll-free number or check the company’s website.
Some experts also suggest discarding clear, rigid plastic bottles that are worn or scratched. Safe replacements include Avent Via Nurser Kit, Evenflo Classic Glass Nurser bottles and Playtex Original Nurser bottles (these brands are available at mass retailers including Babies “R” Us and Target).
For more on plastics and baby bottles, visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website, www.epa.gov.
Green Pregnancy and Family Resources
Eco-savvy moms and moms-to-be love media. Check out these Books, DVDs (and more types of media to come).
On the Web
Healthy Child, Healthy World: Creating a Cleaner, Greener, Safer Home, by Christopher Gavigan
Green Babies, Sage Moms: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Your Organic Baby, by Lynda Fassa. A guide for new mothers raising a green family simply and inexpensively, from the founder of Green Babies organic clothing.
Raising Baby Green: The Earth-Friendly Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Care, by Alan Greene. Winner of the Nautilus Book Awards Gold Medal for “BEST PARENTING BOOK OF THE YEAR,” Dr. Greene, a Stanford pediatrician. Also by Alan Greene: Feeding Baby Green: The Earth Friendly Program for Healthy, Safe Nutrition During Pregnancy, Childhood, and Beyond.
The Complete Organic Pregnancy, by Deirdre Dolan and Alexandra Zissu. Step by step guide to minimizing your exposure to invisible toxins in everything from food, cleaning products, and cosmetics to furniture, rugs, air, and water.
Organic Baby: Simple Steps for Healthy Living, by Kimberly Rider. An inspirational and practical handbook full of smart tips and colorful photos.
The Green Pregnancy Diet: Healthy eating for mommy, baby and the planet, by Radha McLean.
Cheat Sheet for Change
Chances are you’re already doing good things for the environment and to keep your family safe.
It’s not about going green to be trendy, or for some vague philosophy about making the planet safe for future generations. It’s about doing better now for your own family. Instead of changing habits just to ease eco-guilt, think about how you can create a safer and healthier environment so your family can grow and thrive.
From purchasing and eating local produce to ridding your home of toxins in all forms, take stock of the environment closest to you and your baby.
What you use on and around your baby affects her health. From shampoo to clothing to crib sheets, read all ingredient labels and make sure the products are made from organic sources. Take a long-term approach to protecting your children — and the environment. Reuse and repurpose as often as you can.
The above green family tips are based on a series of Green Pregnancy & Family feature stories I wrote for Fit Pregnancy magazine. I’ve updated the information to share with savvy readers who’d like their family environment to be a safer one.