Q: What is the worst environmental hazard in the house for a new baby?
A: For a baby, who spends about 94% of his or her time in a house and/or daycare center, one of the most hazardous environmental issues is chemical exposure. More than 80,000 chemicals are used to make the products that we use everyday, yet less than 3 percent of them have been tested for human safety. This means that common household products—even the products we think are completely safe for us—often expose us, and our children, to thousands of potentially harmful chemicals.
Chemical exposure by inhalation is exceedingly common. This is because many household products actually emit chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some of these VOCs can cause cancer, such as formaldehyde. Others cause eye/nose/throat irritation, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and general malaise. Some VOCs are even linked to developmental and reproductive disorders. Everything from your baby’s crib, crib mattress, and changing table to your paint, kitchen cabinetry, flooring, and cleaners can be a source of VOCs.
If a product smells, chances are, it means there are VOCs in the air. However, keep in mind that the absence of a smell does not mean there are no VOCs. In fact, there are typically 50 to 500 different VOCs in the air at one time whether you can smell them or not.
Babies are at an increased risk for health complications caused by breathing airborne chemicals. For one thing, babies’ brains and other vital organs are immature and are still developing. Relative to their body size, babies also breathe in a greater amount of air than adults do—and they do it at a more rapid rate. Babies’ heart rates are generally faster than those of adults, too, allowing a greater number of chemicals to enter their bloodstream. While the health impacts of some VOCs are known, the overwhelming majority of VOCs on the market today simply have not been evaluated for their potential health risks.
I say err on the side of caution and limit your exposure. The best way to reduce your and your baby’s exposure to VOCs and other airborne chemicals is to practice what’s called “source control.” That means exactly what it sounds like: controlling the source of the contaminant so that it doesn’t get into your home in the first place. Look for products that have been independently verified for low chemical emissions/low VOCs. Often, this distinction is noted on the product packaging; however, you should always do your own research on a product and a certification label before making a purchase. True third-party certifications are best.
For products that aren’t verified or certified for low chemical emissions, be sure to let them off-gas, or air out, for several days in a well-ventilated, unoccupied space, such as a spare room or a back porch, before moving them into the living space of your home. Contrary to popular belief, typical home A/C systems only re-circulate indoor air; they don’t provide ventilation. So, weather and climate permitting, you should open your windows to allow fresh, outdoor air to blow indoors and “dilute” any indoor air contaminants.
Dr. Marilyn Black is a nationally-renowned environmental health scientist and founder of the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, an organization that aims to protect public health by improving indoor air quality and reducing chemical exposure. More at www.greenguard.org.