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Give Your Baby the Best Start

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Most of these fumes "off-gas" into the air within a few months of installation, but some fumes may linger as long as five years later. 

PBDEs: Another set of chemicals -- polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) -- are also a concern. This family of flame-retardant chemicals is used to slow a fire, and carpet padding is full of it. They're also found in TVs and electronic devices, upholstered furniture, and mattresses. PBDEs end up in household dust, exposing everyone in the family.

Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst with Environmental Working Group, has conducted several studies of PBDE exposures -- including one that found toddlers had three times the PBDEs in their blood that their mothers had. "It's because they're on the ground more, putting hands in their mouths, toys in their mouths," she tells WebMD.

PBDEs accumulate both in the environment and in our bodies. Studies of laboratory animals have shown that even small doses of these chemicals impair attention, learning, memory, and behavior. After research raised concern about toxicity, two types of PBDEs were voluntarily taken off the market in 2005. But other forms of PBDEs are still out there. 

Phthalates: Chemicals called phthalates -- used to soften plastics -- have a negative effect on sex hormones, like estrogen and testosterone. There's evidence they can cause reproductive defects and lower sperm count in boys. In one study, vinyl flooring in children's bedrooms was linked with symptoms of asthma, hay fever, and eczema. Phthalates can also be found in carpet, soft plastic toys, and some plastic baby bottles.

Better flooring options -- Wood, cork, and ceramic tile are better options for the family room and the baby's room, says Landrigan. Another option is natural linoleum (vinyl linoleum gives off VOCs).

A few tips:

  • When removing old carpeting, keep that room closed off from others in the house. Don't track dust into other rooms.Make sure you vacuum around the perimeter and in corners, where house dust tends to hide.  
  • If you want a soft surface, get smaller rugs that you can wash.

If replacing your carpet isn't feasible, then you can minimize exposure to allergens by cleaning it frequently. Vacuum at least two times a week, using a HEPA filter. And have your carpet steam-cleaned, without using detergents or chemicals.

4. Opt for low-odor paints. There's a reason for that new-paint smell. Paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, building materials, glues and adhesives -- thousands of products -- all emit VOCs.  Solvents in new paint are associated with a number of health effects, from headaches to fatigue and dizziness. Some are suspected carcinogens.

To avoid irritation from VOCs, look for products with no or low VOC gases. Many major paint manufacturers are producing low-emission paints. A few independent agencies (like Green Seal) provide certification of eco-friendly products. In paint stores, you might see them labeled as "low-odor."

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