The Non-Toxic Nursery

Greening Up the Room That Baby Grows Up In
Heart of Vermont Photo

The Heart of Vermont bassinet is handwoven from palm leaves, and uses an organic wool and cotton futon.

Call it a new parent right of passage: eager mom- and dad-to-be armed with wash buckets and paint brushes (and credit cards) transform a drab bedroom into a plush, colorful nest for their new arrival. Walls are scrubbed and painted, carpeting is tacked down, new furniture is trundled in, and quilts, pillows and blankets are laid out in abundance.

Such extensive preparations go a long way to brightening baby’s room, but they may not offer such good tidings for its tiny occupant. These traditional enhancements may, in fact, be exposing an infant to a slew of toxic chemicals, from the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) wafting off fresh paint to the formaldehyde offgassing from carpeting, furniture, and even new bedding. That doesn’t mean parents should stow their paint brushes and lay down their newborn in dingy quarters. Nurseries can be both clean and healthy, with the right preparation.

If you’re set on painting the nursery, do it as far in advance of the baby’s birth as possible. Go with water-based, latex paint, which has 50 percent less VOCs than paint that’s alkyd or oil-based. Improvements in recent years have significantly bumped up the quality of latex paints, so you won’t find that switching from oil means you’ll have to re-paint your child’s room every couple of years.

Standard latex paints emit some VOCs; many greener brands don’t. Glidden’s Spread 2000 and AFM Safecoat, among others, are VOC-free. These paints still emit an odor until they dry, so don’t forget to factor in a couple of weeks to allow for a complete airing out of the nursery.

Paints that are greener yet are both VOC-free and made from all natural materials, such as earth-pigments, lime, and a milk derivative called casein. These “milk” paints, like those offered by Livos, come in powdered form and must be mixed with water. Paint manufactured before the late 1970s contains lead, which has been shown to retard development in children, so you should test the paint in the nursery if you live in an older home. (Do-it-yourself home test kits are available at most home centers). If lead is detected, don’t rush to get it off. Sanding and scraping will only blanket the nursery in lead dust.

If the lead paint is neither cracking nor peeling, you can either paint over it or leave it be-lead is only poisonous if it’s ingested or inhaled. For small sections that need scraping, cover any floorspace with a drop cloth, wet the targeted surfaces, and scrape carefully. Clean up afterward with a solution of trisodium phosphate (TSP). For bigger jobs, call in a professional certified for lead abatement.

The synthetic carpet that’s laid out at most carpeting emporiums is not only non-biodegradable but may be tainted with up to 120 toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, formaldehyde among them, according to Debra Dadd-Redalia, author of Sustaining the Earth (Hearts Books, 1994).


Nurseries can be both clean and healthy, with the right preparation.


Non-toxic alternatives for the nursery include Nature’s Carpet, which is made from untreated wool, with natural latex and jute backing. The yarn is unbleached and undyed, relying on the subtle shades in sheep’s wool for color. Allure’s wool rugs are colored with organic dyes mixed from the wood, stem and roots of plants. Many green carpets use jute as backing. The Persian-style rugs offered by the Environmental Home Center are woven entirely from the strong, natural fiber.

If you do buy conventional synthetic carpeting, air it out thoroughly before installing and decorate the nursery with devil’s ivy, nephthytis, and spider plants, which have been shown to absorb offgassing chemicals.

All cotton bedding materials have many advantages eco-wise over those made from synthetics, but you can’t get away from the fact that cotton is one of the most heavily pesticide sprayed crops in the world. If you want cotton, scour the eco-catalogs for products like transitional or organic cotton sheets and pillow covers (unbleached and undyed varieties).

Such items are available from Heart of Vermont, which uses naturally-colored FoxFibre as well. Heart of Vermont also offers organic flannel receiving blankets and a bassinet handwoven from palm leaves and filled with a futon made from organic wool and cotton. Snuggled into this warm, safe wool and swaddled in cotton, your baby can’t help but sleep soundly-and safely.