Creating a Chemical-Free Nursery

You may be surprised that some of the products commonly found in a nursery – carpeting, fresh paint, new or refinished furniture, and cleaning supplies – can emit toxic fumes called volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

By Debra Smiley Holtzman

Have you ever walked into a room that had been freshly painted or newly carpeted and said, “The room smells new”? For someone who has no chemical sensitivities, this can be construed as a good thing – something like enjoying a “new car” smell. However, a safe, clean room should have no smell at all.

You may be surprised that some of the products commonly found in a nursery – carpeting, fresh paint, new or refinished furniture, and cleaning supplies – can emit toxic fumes called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are a range of chemicals, many of which are hazardous. Some are carcinogenic and can irritate our lungs. Formaldehyde is a VOC with a pungent odor. (You may remember this smell from your high-school biology lab.) It is a widely used chemical in household products.

A child is more susceptible to the adverse effects of toxins than an adult because children’s lungs are smaller, and children breathe more rapidly. Consequently, they inhale more pollutants per pound of body weight than adults. If that air is contaminated, they will inhale more pollutants. Infants are particularly vulnerable. Because an infant’s nervous and immune systems are in the earliest stages of development, he cannot detoxify chemicals efficiently. For that matter, it is extremely important to pay attention to the well-being of pregnant women; fumes inhaled by the mother can pass through the placenta.

Although we are focusing on the nursery, use the same precautions in other rooms in the house that you may consider refurbishing with fresh paint or new carpets, drapes or furniture. Wherever a baby or mom-to-be will breathe, the emission of chemicals can be harmful.

So when is the best time to apply fresh paint or install new carpet or furniture?

Ideally it is before you even start a family. If this is not possible, it is important to take precautions. A pregnant mom should not paint or be involved with any designing project that will potentially expose her to toxins. She should avoid any recently painted room until the fumes have completely disappeared. If a painting project in the nursery begins or continues after the baby is at home, keep her in your bedroom for a few weeks in a safety-approved crib or bassinet, so she won’t be inhaling air pollutants.

Keep the freshly painted nursery well ventilated – with windows opened and fans turned on to push the fumes out and bring fresh air in. Do this until you can no longer detect any odor. It’s best to perform these projects when it is warm enough to keep windows open and fans on. (In hot climates, the best time may be during cooler months, when the air conditioner is not on.)

Remember, if your home was built before 1978, you should test for lead paint, especially before remodeling or renovating.

Air out a room as long as possible, optimally for at least several days to a few weeks. Don’t allow your child in the room while it is being painted and wait until the fumes have completely disappeared before letting your baby or child sleep in the room.

Select and use paint carefully. Many paints contain VOCs, which do not stay in the paint. As the paint dries and evaporates, the VOCs are released into the air. To minimize your child’s exposure, select water-based latex paints, which generally have fewer VOCs than oil-based paints. Also look for low-VOC paints, which are specially formulated to be low in polluting emissions. There are also VOC-free or no-VOC paints, which do not emit any fumes. If there is no information available on the paint can label, request the materials safety data sheet from the manufacturer or paint store. Even if you use the lower-VOC paints, make sure the newly painted room is ventilated well. Children and pregnant women should stay out of the area until the paint is dry and the odor is gone.

Use area rugs over a floor made of wood, cork tiles, bamboo or natural linoleum. New carpets emit VOCs from the fabric treatment (fire-resistant products or stain-guard), glued backing and adhesives. Infants and small children are especially vulnerable, since they are closer to the floor and spend much of their time on the floor. Moreover, all carpets – no matter what their age – can trap dust, mold, lead and tracked-in pesticide. You’ve probably never thought about the significance of the floor, but when choosing, why not consider flooring such as wood, cork tiles, bamboo or natural linoleum; these are all preferable to fitted carpets.

You can provide a softer cover by using washable area rugs and positioning them over non-slip mats. If you’re planning to use synthetic carpet, ask the sales person to allow your new carpet to ventilate for several days before bringing it to your home. When the installer arrives, have him either tack the carpet down or use low-VOC adhesives. When cleaning the floor or carpet, use mild cleaners instead of detergents containing solvents.

Look for furniture made of solid wood or formaldehyde-free products. Formaldehyde can be emitted from some new products such as laminated wood, pressed wood and particle board because of the glue in the products. Look for furniture made of solid wood or formaldehyde-free particle and fiber board, or use a low-toxic sealant to reduce formaldehyde seepage. Prior to installation or delivery, request that manufacturers or suppliers air out products in their warehouse – with all coverings or packaging removed-- or do it at your home for a few weeks, either outdoors on a porch or in a well-ventilated, unoccupied area, such as a shed or garage.

Debra Smiley Holtzman is a nationally recognized safety expert and author of the award-winning book
The Safe Baby: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Home Safety (Sentient Publications, 2004). She is also the safety expert on Discovery Health Channel’s Make Room for Baby. For more safety tips, check out Debra’s Web site at

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