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Give Your Baby the Best Start

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A less expensive method is a paint chip test, which your local health department can do; it costs from $20 to $50.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a safety alert on its web site about lead-based paint, testing, and guidelines on how to remedy the situation.

If you can't remove the lead paint, you may want to consider finding a new place to live, says Landrigan. There's little chance of lead poisoning with a house built after 1978. Sellers and landlords are required to disclose known lead hazards in houses and apartments built before 1978.

2. Cancel the pest control service. Heavy use of pesticides has the potential to damage a baby's brain, says Landrigan. "These chemicals were developed to destroy an insect's nervous system -- and they have the same effect on a child. It just takes more of the stuff," he says.

What can you do? Instead of spraying pesticides, use the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). It suggests that chemical pesticides be used as the last resort. Instead, reduce pests by simple measures:

  • Meticulously cleaning food residues off plates and cookware.
  • Sealing cracks that are a point of entry for roaches.
  • Remove any sources of water.
  • Get rid of any breeding places (like litter or standing water outside the house).

The EPA provides easy-to-understand guidelines on IPM at two sources -- a brochure titled "Citizens Guide to Pest Control and Pest Safety" and a fact sheet, "Do's and Don'ts of Pest Control." Or, you can check with your local USDA extension office. The nonprofit organization Beyond Pesticides has information about potential health impacts of pesticides and nontoxic alternatives for almost any type of pest problem. They also have a list of companies that employ safer methods if you need to call in experts.

"It's basic stuff, but it works," says Landrigan. "In East Harlem in New York City, we have shown that families who use these methods actually get better pest control than families who bring in the exterminator every month."

In one study, the family using IPM had a serious reduction in the number of roaches after the first month. The family with the exterminator had roaches back just two or three days after the spraying.

3. Replace wall-to-wall carpeting. "Carpeting is an incredible sink for dust, mold, and mildew -- and those all can trigger asthma in children," says Landrigan. Pesticides, pet dander, lead dust, and chemicals from cleaners and other household products can settle into the fibers.

Some things to consider about carpet:

VOCs: New carpeting has many chemicals -- including formaldehyde -- in its adhesives, glue strips, and rug pads. These volatile organic compounds (VOCs) evaporate into the air, causing chemical fumes that can irritate eyes, nose, and throat as well as trigger headaches. That new carpet smell? Those are VOCs you're breathing in.

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