Dear Umbra,

I am pregnant and wondering if you know of any websites or resources for setting up a nursery — for green furniture, bedding, and mattresses. We’re painting the nursery with low-VOC paint and looking for low-VOC carpeting, and we gratefully accept used toys and clothes from friends and family.

Janine Olsen
Pine Brook, N.J.

Dearest Janine,

Happy to advise, based on a bit of research I’ve done for you in particular, but also what I’ve learned over the years about furniture and room finishes, as they are known.

Little bundle of oy.

Photo: A Grist daddy.

As you know, toxins that have a mild effect on most adults can have a stronger impact on infants and children. The smaller bodies and unpracticed immune systems of young humans are simply not as able to cope. We should be cautious about such choices, but I know it can be hard to toe the line between reasonable caution and massive panic when it comes to one’s children. The aim is to do the best you can.

The first point might be buying only what you need. Talk with experienced parents or a professional, such as a doula, about the equipment that is necessary and useful, and be clear with your family and friends that you welcome most used goods but only want certain new goods. Don’t fret that you will offend people — after all, what’s better than knowing a gift is useful?

As you go about finding whatever new goods you need, follow a few guidelines. One good bit of advice I found was to focus first on the major environmental (in the sense of surroundings) health threats, which seem to be asthma, cancer, and developmental/neurological harm (that’s all!). You are already moving in this direction by avoiding volatile organic compounds in your paint, and I would recommend going further on the carpet issue by avoiding it altogether. Carpet can be low-VOC, but will always be attractive to dust mites, mold, and mildew, as well as quite hard to clean. You could go all out and get a HEPA vacuum cleaner, or you could go for a nice formaldehyde-free floor covering such as linoleum.

Minimize formaldehyde, which is a suspected carcinogen used in certain adhesives and found in plywood, pressed wood products, and permanent-press type fabrics. A lot of cheap furniture and cabinets will have formaldehyde in them, unless specified otherwise by the manufacturer. Don’t buy products labeled “known to the state of California to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.” Obviously don’t use furniture with peeling lead paint.

There is a book called The Natural Nursery: The Parent’s Guide to Ecologically Sound, Nontoxic, Safe, and Healthy Baby Care that might be helpful to you, and an article in The Green Guide you could scope out (though it requires a subscription). I can’t recommend specific low-toxin baby-gear vendors as I haven’t vetted the products, but I saw quite a few while surfing around on the web.

Try to be imaginative as well as minimalist with baby room equipment. Your baby doesn’t care if the furniture was made for a baby, or if you buy a blue changing table instead of plopping a changing pad on top of a low dresser. Your existing furniture or local salvage store may do just fine. Congratulations, by the way.

Coo-ily,
Umbra