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Poison in the Nursery

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Painting nursery
Can an expectant mom assemble her baby's room without using toxic chemicals?

When I walk into my new house, I wear a large, cumbersome respirator with a high-efficiency air filter attached to it. There’s a strap that wraps around my neck and a headpiece that grips the crown of my head. If you were to picture Darth Vader without the helmet and just the facemask, you wouldn’t be far off.

I wear this contraption because my 100-year-old house is undergoing an elaborate procedure to remove or encapsulate lead paint. After buying it, we were dismayed (although not entirely shocked) to learn that the vast majority of the painted surfaces in our 2,700-square-foot home are slathered in aging lead paint. I’m pregnant, so I don’t really want to be trolling around the place huffing lead dust all day. Now each time I visit, I furtively unlock the front door, glance over my shoulder to make sure the neighbors aren’t watching, and suit up as quickly as possible.

Making the place lead-safe is just one component of my multi-pronged effort to create  an environment fit for raising an asthma-, cancer-, and cognitive impairment–free kid. Slightly neurotic-sounding, I know, but the truth is that run-of-the-mill building supplies contain myriad nasty chemicals that seep out of carpets, wallboard, and paint. Over the course of days, weeks, months, and even years, science is finding, exposure to these chemicals can create a range of health problems from asthma and hyperactivity disorders to liver and kidney damage, and even cancer.

Choose the wrong paint, for example, and your kid could end up spending 15 hours a day huffing benzene (a carcinogen) while she sleeps in her crib. Buy a crib made of compressed wood products and you can add formaldehyde (another carcinogen) to the list of what she’s breathing. Taken together, those two products leach into the air an assortment of other compounds that are collectively linked with higher rates of asthma. And of course there’s the lead (here’s where cognitive impairment comes in) in the old paint we’re trying to get rid of -- it covers our window frames and walls, and most every bit of painted molding to boot.

When you buy a house filled with lead-based paint, the most common solution is to seal it in with modern, lead-free paints -- but as I’ve already mentioned, many modern paints have their own toxic ingredients (which have led some public health experts to advise against putting a fresh coat of paint in a room where your baby will be sleeping). So in our case, it became a question of which flavor of poison pill should we swallow?

Is this really what modern life is all about? It seems we’re all too often confronted by an array of so-so options, each of which comes with tradeoffs of one kind or another. Knowing which choice is the right one can put a tremendous strain on cognizant expectant parents, not to mention everyone else who’d like to maintain a healthy living environment.

Unwilling to consign my child to breathing in one form of poison or another, I duly researched health-safe (or safer) paints, which are those with few or no volatile organic compounds. Often referred to as VOCs, these compounds include formaldehyde and benzene as well as other molecules that are typically used as solvents. They later evaporate into the air as paint dries and slowly escape into the ambient air for months afterward. One study of latex paints detected such compounds escaping from the paint more than a year after application.

Several friends, including my mother, told me that their painters had griped about zero-VOC paints, telling them that they’re tacky and therefore tough to apply, take longer to dry, and don’t leave the nicest finish. After talking with our own contractor, we found one that was readily available at the paint-supply place he frequents and wasn’t too difficult to use.

Later I stopped by the house to see if I liked the color I had chosen for the living room. There was nobody else there, and except for the raspy woosh of my respirator, there was no sound at all. I stood in the middle of the room and my eyes fixed on a can of Benjamin Moore Regal paint. This was decidedly not the low-VOC stuff that I had chosen.

As best as a pregnant woman wearing a bulky respirator can, I hurried up the stairs to see if these same paint cans were left in our bedroom and the baby’s room. Indeed they were. The job was nearly finished, completed entirely in a substance with the highest VOC content of all the paints rated by Consumer Reports.

My contractor had simply forgotten that I had specified the eco-friendly version, and he ordered the stuff he uses for the vast majority of his jobs. Only one other client had ever requested a low-VOC paint, he told me later on that afternoon.

Over the next several days, I called green building suppliers and scoured the Internet, searching for something that might seal in these toxic vapors. Along the way, I learned I wasn’t alone. Eventually I found myself on the phone with a guy from a company called AFM, which makes a special primer designed to seal in the nasty stuff I so desperately did not want my baby breathing. He told me he regularly gets calls from people looking to solve this very same problem. Many contractors are so used to going about their business as usual that they simply forget to order the safer paints that health-conscious clients have requested.

A few days later, a case of AFM Safecoat Transitional Primer arrived at the house. The workers re-primed the walls and painted with Benjamin Moore’s Natura paint, a zero-VOC product that comes in all the same colors.

Catastrophe averted. Now all I have to worry about are the phthalates in the IV tubing in the delivery room, and the BPA in the plastic toys the kid will undoubtedly demand, and the fact that she might have a peanut allergy…

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Brooklyn-based journalist Laura Wright Treadway is a contributing editor to OnEarth and a former senior editor at the magazine. With degrees in environmental science and geology, as well as stints at Scientific American and Discover, she's also our f... READ MORE >
check out MYTHIC paint. i am mcs and i found it to be wonderful, covers & seals very well, immediately breathable. good article, & good luck to you.
I realize this is a serious problem but it could be worse. There used to be a fad for beautiful green wallpaper. The color was supplied by arsenic compounds. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children and adults died from breathing in the dust which the wallpaper spread. There were no regulatory agencies to stop the companies from using arsenic-based paint or pigments. So if you are in an old house and you see green wallpaper get it tested for arsenic before you touch it or breathe in the dust around it. Source: "" by Andrew Meharg. Warning: It will break your heart to read this.
Thanks for this info. Any one living in an area with plenty of older homes needs to know this. Just goes to show we need to keep asking for, if not demanding, safe guards. It seems with things that are "common sense" we shouldn't have to, but maybe these are the ones that are more dangerous because they slip under the wire with "who wouldathunkit"? It's difficult to be vigilant with EVERYTHING, but we are the ones who benefit, so I just keep being persistent.
There is a no/low VOC paint co. in Portland OR called Rodda paint (RoddaPaint.com). Also, a co. in Albuquerque NM produces natural based powdered pigments that are mixed into plaster and applied to the foundation/wall, whatever that would be. They are in Albuquerque and ship the powder anywhere. One would need to find a good plasterer where they live, and have them research exactly what the mixing and application proceedures would be. If I could access my bookmarks right now I would list it, but we're setting up a new computer and it will take some time to get at it. I think that I have read about milk paints being manufactured here in the U.S. It would need not to peel or chip and I don't think this product did.
I think this piece could really benefit from some visual evidence. Where are the respirator pics, Laura? Your readers demand respirator pics!