Dearest readers,

Occasionally a theme jumps out at me from Ye Olde Inbox. This week’s theme is: Oh dear, you parents do worry. I know there is plenty to fret about, raising children in this mixed-up, toxic world of ours. But I also believe in giving oneself a break when possible. In that spirit, I hereby present an ‘It’ll Be OK, Parents’ Edition of Ask Umbra.

Q. Dear Umbra,

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We own stain-resistant, flame-resistant couches and rent an apartment with wall-to-wall carpeting. I have recently learned of the dangers of flame retardants, but am not sure what to do with this alarming new knowledge. We have an infant who crawls around on the floor, we sit on the couches all the time. I have started insisting that everyone in the house wear long pants and socks so as to minimize contact with the carpet and couches, and we vacuum both floor and furniture every day with a HEPA vacuum, but I am ready to move me and my baby out to the balcony to live and sleep. We can’t afford new couches again so soon, and the prospect of moving is similarly daunting. Short of placing my son in a glass bubble, what should I do?

Rachel G.
Austin, Texas

A. Dearest Rachel,

The first thing you should do is take a deep breath. Then let your loved ones change back into their shorts. August in Austin is no time for pants and socks.

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It is scary indeed that so many of our furnishings — including baby items, but you didn’t need to hear that — are treated with chemicals whose effects range from unknown to carcinogenic. You might want to read this Chicago Tribune series that brought some of the issues to light last year, including the role of Big Tobacco in pushing mostly unnecessary flame retardants on us all. Manufacturers now pump their products full of chemicals to meet stringent California flammability standards, but California is in the midst of rethinking those standards — so there may be hope. If the standard is revised, we could have access to items with far fewer chemicals in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, the best thing we can do, and it’s admittedly not much, is control dust in our homes, where the chemicals can settle — here are some useful tips from the Green Science Policy Institute. Vacuuming and mopping regularly is helpful, they say, and hand-washing is key — especially for young children. One expert also recommends washing your hands after handling dryer lint.

But Rachel, there’s caution and then there’s mania. While I agree it is sickening to think that household objects could pose a threat to one’s family, another important part of your job as a parent is to remain calm and collected for your child. Do what you can, but don’t vacuum yourself and your family into a total frenzy, OK?


Q. Dear Umbra,

Is the Fisher Price chatter telephone really non-toxic? Is it safe to give to my toddler to play with? I don’t tend to trust the plastic that FP toys are made from, but we received this as a gift.

Drea T.
Falls Church, Va.

A. Dearest Drea,

I contacted Mattel, the parent company of Fisher Price, which responded that all of the plastics used in its products are “considered safe by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.” Whether you find succor in that statement will depend on many things, including your faith in government oversight of toxic materials and your level of comfort with the known and unknown risks posed by plastics. One thing is certain: The term “non-toxic” on a label is meaningless. I was going to refer you to an earlier column on how to find safe toys for children, but lo and behold, that question also came from you! A quick refresher, for those who aren’t you: We should try to minimize the plastic in our lives, especially vinyl (PVC), and we should try to keep plastic out of our children’s mouths. If you think your child would enjoy dragging a toy telephone around and won’t gnaw on the receiver, I say you can safely let him play with it. As always, use your judgment — but don’t let your judgment get in the way of having a good time.


Q. Hi Umbra,

I live in the greater Nashville area. I have lived for over a year in the same duplex and recently have been told by the landlord that I am not allowed to dry my clothing outside as I have been for last year. Drying clothing outside is not mentioned in my lease and I cannot find any information online. Previously, drying outside was a matter of preference, but after having a baby this has turned into a financial necessity as we absolutely do not have the money to run a dryer. We also cloth diaper due to financial necessity and I don’t want to put my diapers through the dryer every day as we only have just over one day’s supply of them and the dryer wears them out very fast. Are clotheslines really illegal where I live or is someone just annoyed at seeing a drying rack outside my back door?

Ada M.
Hermitage, Tenn.

A. Dearest Ada,

So sorry your bundle of joy is causing a bundle of stress. As we’ve discussed before, regulations on clotheslines vary from state to state, and even from neighborhood to neighborhood. Landlords and homeowners associations can also make their own rules about clotheslines. If a lease is unclear or in question, the state agencies responsible for consumer affairs or public health are a good starting place to learn more about tenants’ rights. It looks like in your area the Legal Aid Society also has some useful resources for renters [PDF] — I’m not suggesting you need a lawyer, but they might have encountered this issue before and have some advice. You could also check with the folks at the national right-to-dry organization Project Laundry List. If you don’t feel like dealing with your cranky landlord and potentially cranky fellow tenants, how about giving indoor drying a try? Can you string a clothesline somewhere in your apartment — here’s advice for building a simple retractable one for $5 — or use drying racks? I know sunshine has beneficial effects on cloth diapers, but if you hang them near a window, that reportedly works nearly as well. (Before anyone pooh-poohs my idea of stringing diapers about the place: They’re clean, people. Think it through.)

Let me know what happens, Ada. And good luck.


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