“Most new parents want to paint a room,” says Gavigan. “Painting is an air pollutant, so it’s best to use paints with no or low VOCs [volatile organic compounds]. These compounds keep the paint liquidy in the can and help it dry on the wall, and while experts disagree on how harmful they are with everyday use, some have been shown to cause cancer in some studies and others can cause damage to organs. Natural milk paints and other natural paints are less toxic than traditional paints.
Milk paints are odorless, and made from milk protein (casein) and earth pigments such as lime and clay. They come in powdered form, to be mixed with water. Milk paints contain no preservatives or biocides and should be applied quickly after mixing. It is definitely best to paint early, before you are pregnant, but whenever you do paint, take precautions. “You should always get as much ventilation as possible whiel painting [which means opening windows and using fans], even with low-VOC paints.
Use a good paint that will cover in one coat, if possible,” says Tom Natan, research director of the National Environmental Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that educates people about environmental problems and their effects on their life and health. As for wallpapers, traditional ones are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
The manufacture of PVC creates dioxins, among other industrial by-products, which enter the food chain and get into the fat of animals (including humans), where they can cause cancer and harm the immune system. So they aren’t a good choice for a baby’s room. Instead, think about natural wall coverings, such as bamboo, raffia, rice paper, cork, recycled paper and grass coverings made from vines. Be especially careful about the glue you use to adhere these coverings: Use a water-based nontoxic one.
Floors are another consideration. “Hard surfaces are usually the best,” says Gavigan. “Wall-to-wall carpeting holds in bacteria, mold, pet dander and dust, and then a baby is often putting her mouth on it. Just by taking your shoes off—the soles hold about 80 percent of the dust and dirt inside the house—you can cut down on it.”
If you are changing the floors, opt for wood bamboo, cork or reclaimed wood that has been certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging the responsible management of the world’s forests). If you have no choice but carpeting, Gavigan suggests putting a simple cotton blanket (that can be tossed in the washer) down on the floor for the baby, or using a cotton or wool throw rug.
If you’re getting new synthetic carpet, let it air out in the garage or outside before it’s installed so that it can off-gas (release volatile chemicals into the air). Finally, vacuum the baby’s room well and often using a vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter, which traps large amounts of very small particles, unlike vacuums with other kinds of filters.