When I was pregnant with my first child, our downstairs neighbors embarked on an unannounced renovation of their apartment. The noise was bad, but the chemical fumes were intolerable. In the dead of winter, my husband and I kept our windows open because the fumes wafting upward were so strong. Naturally, we worried that they could harm our developing fetus.
Fortunately, as my obstetrician predicted, he’s now a healthy five-year-old. But that experience inspired me to learn more about keeping our kids’ rooms as non-toxic as possible. Here are five guidelines I follow to minimize our kids’ potential exposure to substances that could interfere with their health or development.
Identify potential hazards
When we moved into our 100-year-old home a year ago, my first priority was to look for hazardous materials like lead and asbestos—both of which were used in many homes built before 1980 or so. Especially if you have young children, it’s important to know whether any hazards are lurking in your walls, exterior, or pipes. An environmental specialist can get the job done thoroughly, or you can do DIY testing to determine whether there’s lead in your paint or water. This is especially important if you’re planning to renovate, since lead dust can become airborne. Better to know whether you need to take precautions before you go all HGTV on your place.
Choose safer materials
Ever get a new piece of furniture, only to have it give off a weird smell? That’s off-gassing, and it’s really not great, since exposure to certain airborne chemicals can lead to health problems over the long term. For instance, the common furniture material MDF can release formaldehyde into the air, and some vinyl flooring and paint can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Since it’s possible to avoid these materials, why not, y’know? To minimize our exposure, I used VOC-free paint throughout our house. We also opt for natural materials in the kids’ rooms whenever possible.
Sometimes, making that choice is a little more expensive, but not always. My husband and I outfitted our son’s room with an Ikea Sniglar crib because it’s made of beech (and also because it was a good-looking bargain). And don’t overlook secondhand shopping! Earlier this year, I picked up a vintage walnut dresser for way less than the cost of a new MDF dresser.
I try to buy budget-friendly organic and natural textiles, especially for bedding. My toddler sleeps on an organic flannel fitted sheet with a made-in-the-States wool blanket. It all cost a little extra, but he’ll still be using the blanket as a teenager, so the cost per use is pretty low. Right now, I’m saving up for a wool rug and a natural rubber rug pad to go beneath it.
We’re a strict “no shoes in the house” family. Why? Because we don’t want to track in dirt and random chemicals that our shoes pick up when we’re out and about. If you have a baby or toddler who’s crawling, it’s a nearly effortless way to reduce their exposure to unknown stuff. Plus, the floors stay cleaner.
Clear the air
Indoor air quality often is worse than outdoor air, surprisingly. We run air purifiers in the kids’ rooms to reduce dust and allergens, but—bonus!—they also add pleasant white noise for sleeping. If you really want to geek out on air quality, you could monitor your indoor air with a device such as Awair. But personally, running the purifiers (and making sure our carbon monoxide detectors are in working order) is enough for me. I also keep a cool mist humidifier going this time of year to reduce skin dryness and keep the kids’ rooms feeling comfortable.
Keep it clean
A clean house is a healthy house, as long as you’re using non-toxic products. I used to get headaches from traditional household cleaners, but they disappeared when I switched formulas. For the kids’ rooms, we vacuum and dust at least once a week.
Most of the time, I dust with a damp cloth; if there’s a bigger mess, I use a non-toxic formula like Blueland‘s cleaner. Our vacuum has a HEPA filter, too, which captures microscopic yuck. The frustrating part of cleaning my kids’ rooms is that it’s a never-ending task and Legos are lurking everywhere. But on the bright side, they’re finally getting old enough to start doing it themselves. Little by little, we’re making progress. —Annie Tomlin