Couples often undertake remodeling projects when they are expecting a baby or at other times of transition. If you’re considering a remodeling project and there is a pregnant woman or young child in your household, even if it’s just paint and carpeting, it’s wise to first get information on potential chemical risks and safer alternatives.
Building materials and supplies can contain potentially harmful chemicals that expose pregnant women and young children. Chemicals in these products can be released into indoor air, migrate into house dust, provide direct skin contact or be ingested by small children who put things in their mouths.
Lead is the number one high-risk chemical to be aware of because it is a potent brain toxin and even tiny amounts of lead in a child’s blood can impact intelligence, behavior and learning. If your home was built before 1978, test for lead paint before undertaking painting and remodeling projects. You can buy inexpensive lead test strips at the hardware store. Follow guidelines to avoid exposure to lead paint dust and pregnant women and children should stay away from the home during the process. You may need to hire a certified lead remediation contractor. See the Minnesota Department of Health’s recommendations to prevent lead poisoning.
If you’re a renter, be aware that the landlord who rents units built before 1978 must disclose all known “… lead-based paint hazards in the unit, include a warning in the lease, and give renters a copy of the Environmental Protection Agency’s pamphlet Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home.“[i]
Fumes from paints and solvents used in remodeling projects can expose families to volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) linked to adverse effects on the reproductive and nervous systems, as well as cancer. Exposure to the VOCs – formaldehyde, plasticizers and new paint is also associated with increased risks for respiratory and allergic reactions in children.[i] Exposure to solvents, substances used to dissolve other chemicals, (e.g. toluene, ethyl alcohol, turpentine, acetone, kerosene, benzene, napthas, laquer thinners, mineral spirits, methyl chloroform) in home remodeling can take place through use of paint; paint strippers/ thinners; varnishes; adhesives/glues; and cleaners/degreasers. If you absolutely need to use any of these products, look for the least toxic products you can find and keep pregnant women and young children away from the home until the fumes subside. Also ventilate the area well. Fortunately, there are many excellent low-VOC or no-VOC paints on the market today.
New carpet and flooring can also off-gas VOCs.
- Vinyl flooring may contain hormone-disrupting phthalate plasticizers that migrate into the air and house dust. Prenatal exposure to phthalates is associated with increased risk of reproductive and developmental problems and cancer. Phthalate-free vinyl flooring is now widely available at home improvement stores. Non-vinyl green flooring alternatives are hardwood, bamboo, cork and marmoleum.
- New carpet can also emit VOCs, recognized as that “new carpet smell ” and contribute to poor indoor air quality. Emissions generally subside after a few days with good ventilation. Consider natural wool carpet as a safer alternative to conventional nylon or other synthetic fibers. If you’re installing conventional carpet in the nursery, install a few months before baby is due to arrive and ventilate well
- Adhesives used to apply carpet and other flooring may contain semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), which continue to emit chemicals and may react with environmental elements to create secondary emissions of other chemicals such as aldehydes. Look for flooring materials that have been certified asthma and allergy-friendly by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (www.aafa.org)
- Composite wood products may off-gas the VOC formaldehyde, a respiratory irritant and potential carcinogen. Avoid products with urea-formaldehyde and look for products certified as low-emitting (low-VOC).
- For both hardwood and engineered wood, look for products that are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.
Dealing with mold and asbestos, may call for specific remediation to prevent exposures. Asbestos removal must be done by a certified professional. If your mold problem is significant, you may also need to hire a professional. Pregnant women and children should stay away from the area until the problem is resolved.
It may seem a bit overwhelming, but know that there are many green and safe products now available to make your home safe for you family. See Top Tips for Healthy Kids – Safe Remodeling.
[i] Mendell MJ, Indoor residential chemical emissions as risk factors for respiratory and allergic effects in children: a review. Indoor Air. 2007;17(4):259-77.