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The Easy and Inexpensive Green Home Guide

James Tse

Sure, saving faraway rain forests is noble, but there are easy ways to go green right in your own home and eliminate health risks to both baby and planet -- without turning your life upside down or spending a bundle.

Like "LOL," "bling" and "wardrobe malfunction," "green" is a pop-culture term teetering on the brink of overkill. It's a trendy word employed by celebrities with a cause and retail brands that pluck our altruistic heartstrings. But for the average mom or dad, green means dragging a bin of cans and bottles to the curb every Thursday morning, with a faint hope that it will save a rain forest 3,000 miles away or an ozone layer they can't see. Worthwhile? Absolutely, but green isn't just about deforestation in South America or a layer in the earth's atmosphere. It's about our homes, our bodies and our babies.

In 2005, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting public health and the environment, conducted a small study to see which industrial chemicals and pollutants were present in a newborn's cord blood at the moment of birth. The results were staggering: The average baby had 200 chemicals and pollutants in his cord blood; 287 different chemicals were discovered in the 10 babies tested. Some chemicals came from common consumer products like fabric-stain removers and fast-food packaging; others had been banned in the United States for years but still linger in the food chain, groundwater and soil. For these infants, the umbilical cord -- a baby's conduit for oxygen and nutrients -- was a contaminated lifeline. "We were shocked," says Alan Greene, M.D., a pediatrician in Danville, California, and a contributor to the EWG study. "Many people don't know that when something is polluting the environment, it's [also] polluting us."

Greene is no stranger to the impact the environment has on us. It was a lesson he first learned on March 12, 1996, when his wife, Cheryl, was diagnosed with breast cancer. "She was nursing our youngest baby and had to stop," he recalls. "It was a real life-changer." While researching his wife's illness, Greene discovered a connection between breast cancer and pesticides. As it happens, Cheryl grew up on a farm in California's Central Valley. "I learned about the pesticides they used on the farm," he explains. "These pesticides were sprayed outside her bedroom window and were in the well water." Today Cheryl is cancer-free, but Greene continues his cause as the author of Raising Baby Green and Feeding Baby Green, books that cover everything from air-filtering plants to zinc-oxide sunscreens.

For those who haven't experienced an "a-ha" moment like this, green tends to be associated with inconvenience. It's true: To go green often requires an extra step, a second thought or one more pit stop on the way home. But incremental changes might just change your child's life. "Health issues like asthma, childhood obesity and ADHD are on the rise," Greene explains. "So what's causing it? The human body hasn't changed. It's the environment that's changed."

Here are a few simple ways to make your new baby's life a little greener -- and healthier too.

{C}The Nursery: Baby's Home Safe Home

Babies spend up to 16 hours a day in their nursery, so creating a safe, toxin-free environment is a priority. According to Greene, an organic crib mattress is a good place to start. A new crib mattress comes from a factory loaded with potent fumes. (See for yourself -- give one a sniff.) With their organs still developing, and an inability to handle the same toxic load as adults, chemical exposure in infants can lead to serious health problems.

Organic crib mattresses are available online (naturepedic.com and organic-crib-mattress.org), and can cost the same as standard crib mattresses. If you do buy a standard mattress, Greene recommends putting it on a screened porch or other aerated enclosure and letting fresh air eliminate some of the fumes.

Parents can spend hours deciding on a nursery theme, comparing paint swatches and browsing furniture, but only minutes are spent on what kind of paint and furniture to choose. Most paints contain high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like petroleum. When some VOC paints are exposed to sunlight, they create smog (that's right -- the stuff hovering over Los Angeles). Many cribs, dressers and bookshelves are made with medium-density fiberboard, which off-gasses formaldehyde, a known cause of asthma and allergies.

Kimberly Rider knows plenty about choosing eco-friendly home furnishings. She's the founder of Kimberly Rider Interiors, a Sausalito, California, interior design firm dedicated to "blending sustainable materials and modern design." After the birth of her son in 2006, her business expanded to designing green nurseries, a skill she captures in her book Organic Baby: Simple Steps for Healthy Living. "When I designed my son's nursery, I had to do all the research and ask all the right questions," she says. "I knew I couldn't mess up. The health and safety of my son was in my hands."

Greene and Rider both recommend low- or zero-VOC paints. The Home Depot sells The Freshaire Choice, which contains no VOCs or harsh chemicals and comes in 66 shades. Harmony by Sherwin-Williams is another eco-sensitive paint; some colors are even made from sustainable materials like soy and sunflower oil. With furniture, look for solid wood items with a water-based finish and no formaldehyde. Vintage items, when checked for safety, can be a cost-effective alternative.

The Diaper Bin: Change Has Come

The debate continues about disposable diapers and cloth diapers: convenience versus complication; time and money spent versus time and money saved. What isn't debatable is the environmental impact. Approximately 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used each year in the United States, which translates to 3.7 million tons of landfill waste.

For Linda Byerline, the decision to use cloth diapers wasn't about her local landfill in El Cajon, California. It was about the premature birth of her baby. "My daughter was born at 33 weeks," she says. "She was on a ventilator." One of the doctors noted that the off-gassing of her tiny disposable diapers might be exacerbating the breathing problems. He suggested Byerline buy cloth diapers. Unable to find any, she made her own. "After switching to cloth diapers," says Byerline, "her medical charts documented a 50 percent decrease in her needing breathing assistance and medication."

Seeing a need in the marketplace, she created Happy Heinys, one-size-fits-all reusable diapers in an array of styles and colors. Bidders on eBay bought her first diapers for $200 each. Now eight years old, the company sells 1.5 million diapers per year for less than $20 each.

Happy Heinys do require extra effort. You must empty the waste into a toilet, and wash them in a separate load of laundry. A less labor-intensive option is the "hybrid" diaper. One such manufacturer is gDiapers, which combines a cloth diaper cover with a 100-percent biodegradable insert that can be thrown away or flushed down the toilet.

The savings involved might be enough to convince some families to switch sides. Byerline says that $300 covers all the Happy Heinys you need from birth to potty training. According to the Real Diaper Association, the average family spends $1,600 on disposable diapers during that same period. (That's $66 per month.)

{C}The Kitchen: Buy Products Without Byproducts

Cheryl Arnold is a mother of two living in Miami Beach, Florida. Her green "a-ha" moment came when daughter Zoey was born. "As a baby she was diagnosed with asthma," says Arnold. "I thought I was doing everything right. She was breastfed exclusively, and I made all her baby food." Even still, her daughter had to take four medications. "I was devastated." Arnold became an infant asthma expert. She learned about alternative cleaning products, how to read labels and the food additives in her pantry. Today her home is a model for green living, and the kitchen is ground zero. The family belongs to an organic co-op where they buy fruits, vegetables, eggs and chicken. She only uses all-natural cleaning products. Even her pest control is green -- the exterminator pours vinegar down the sink drain. The result? "Zoey is no longer on any asthma medication." Arnold's green mission has birthed something else: Froganic Fundraising, specializing in eco-friendly fundraising for schools and organizations. (Think Girl Scouts, but trade Thin Mints and shortbreads for BPA-free water bottles and reusable snack pouches.)

What's an easy starting point for new parents? "Clean the house and walk outside for a few minutes," she says. "When you come back, what do you smell? What is permeating the air?" For Arnold, the window cleaner was first to go, and for good reason. Many household cleaning products contain VOCs, formaldehyde and bleach that can cause respiratory irritation. To clean floors, kitchen sinks and countertops, try castile soap, a vegetable-based, all-purpose cleaner. (Visit drbronner.com for all kinds of castile-based cleaning products.) Sweet Grass Farms, a New Hampshire company that manufactures all-natural household products, recently unveiled Farmhouse, a nontoxic, plant-based spray that works on windows, woodwork, tile, laminate and wood floors. Visit sweetgrassonline.com to buy it online or to find a retailer in your area.

You might also consider going organic with your produce. Pesticides are connected to cancer and reproductive problems. If you buy regular, keep in mind that peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers and celery carry the highest pesticide load of all fruits and vegetables.

The Parent: Taking Care of You

Everyday decisions parents make for themselves shouldn't be overlooked. For starters, consider the lotions you wear and the fragrances you spray. For example, who knew we needed protection from sun protection? Some sunscreens contain octinoxate and oxybenzone, which can actually raise the risk of cancer, according to the EWG. Try a natural mineral sunscreen using zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, such as those from California Baby (californiababy.com).

Greene adds that a lot of cosmetics are chemically enhanced. And don't assume there are teams of scientists ensuring these products are safe: The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, enforced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, does not require cosmetic manufacturers or marketers to test their products. Keep an eye out for mercury (mascara), lead acetate (hair coloring products) and petroleum distillates (lipstick and lip balm). Target stores have a bevy of natural and organic products including baby shampoo, eyeliner, lip-gloss and stretch-mark cream.

There's no question that going green can involve a few inconvenient truths for many families -- after all, changing buying habits and lifestyles isn't easy. But after the green trend fades like a deciduous tree in autumn, we'll be left with the research, the evidence and the ability to choose wisely. "The green movement will be a fad," notes Greene. "But paying attention is here to stay."

 

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