Toxins Where Your Baby Sleeps?

When my husband and I shopped for a crib, in 2009, we were shocked to learn that the government does not adequately regulate some aspects of the safety of cribs. The government is obviously making efforts to regulate the structural aspects of cribs so that children will no longer become trapped under drop rails and such, thank goodness. However, despite much scientific evidence that off-gassing of chemicals known as volitile organic compounds (VOCs), from furniture, plays a part in the development of disorders such as asthma, cancer, immune dysfunction, and infertility (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), the government has not issued regulations in this arena. Furthermore, the current federal limits regarding heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, and bromine, in coatings on children’s furniture are considered too permissive by experts. California and Illinois have taken the initiative to legislate a lower levels for lead for their states, but until all states or the federal government follow suit it is up to parents to protect our children the best we can.

What are VOCs?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency's "Introduction to Indoor Air-Quality," the term "VOCs" refers to a wide range of chemicals that are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. Many consumer products release VOCs. VOCs are associated with both short- and long-term health problems, and the concentrations of VOCs in the air we breathe (and present on surfaces) is typically higher indoors than it is outdoors.

VOCs are Emitted From Solid Furnishings

When it comes to hard furniture like cribs, the levels of VOCs emitted is dependent upon the type of wood and the type of finish. I use the term "wood" loosely throughout this post. Formaldehyde, a VOC with enormous health-risks is the most talked about VOC when it comes to wood, but there are many others. Although all wood has a small amount of formaldehyde, press-wood (a.k.a., composite, fiberboard, MDF, veneer, OSB, and some types of plywood) is known to release much higher levels of VOCs than natural, solid wood. This is because manufactured wood is largely composed of resins and glues that are teaming with VOCs.

In 2007, the California Air Resources Board issued limits on the levels of formaldehyde emissions from press-board products sold, used, or manufactured in the state of California. The Air Toxic Control Measure (ATCM) standards they enacted took effect in two Phases, with the strictest phase, Phase 2, beginning in 2010. In July 2010, President Obama signed the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act into law, which is set to bring federal standards up to California standards by January 1, 2013. These measures are steps in the right direction, but studies show that press-board also emits benzene (a known developmental toxin and carcinogen) and toluene (a known developmental toxin, reproductive toxin, and neurotoxin). Furthermore, the replacements for formaldehyde that have been used since the CARB guidelines were enacted, such as isocyanates, are also known to cause asthma, pneumonitis, and cancer. Therefore, even press-board products that claim to be CARB Phase 2 compliant are not anywhere near as safe as good-old-fashioned solid wood with a safe finish. However, when buying solid wood cribs, make sure to verify that any glues that were used are at least water-based and VOC-free, and preferably natural or even organic.

VOCs in the Finishes–We Wouldn't Want the Lead to Be Lonely

In addition to concerns with lead, cadmium, and other toxins being present on the surface of painted, stained, and varnished furniture, VOCs are also a concern. Paints, varnishes, and stains applied to wood furniture can also emit large amounts of VOCs, regardless of the exact type of wood underneath. Low- and no-VOC finishes are available in the present day, but very few manufacturers are using them. If the manufacturer does not boast about using a low-VOC or no-VOC finish, then you can assume it is full of VOCs. Lower VOC coatings are typically more expensive, so if a manufacturer is using it, they are going to make it known ... and typically reflected in the purchase price of the product.

Often, when buying children's furniture, you will see manufacturers say that their finishes are "non-toxic."  Unfortunately, this simply means that the finish adheres to federal safety standards for coatings. However, those standards are not protecting us from VOCs, nor are they protecting us adequately from heavy metals and other harmful substances. In many cases, the federal standards tolerate levels of heavy metals and other known toxins (many of which are carcinogens) that scientists believe are far too high to be safe with repeated exposures.

Another claim manufacturers like to make, in addition to "non-toxic," is that their finishes are "water-based." Although water-based is preferable to petroleum-based (petroleum based products are often heavily contaminated with heavy metals), water-based coatings can still contain carcinogens and heavy metals, and emit large amounts of VOCs.

When you decide to begin protecting your family from toxins, you will quickly learn that calling manufacturers needs to become a part of your purchases. A family who trusts labels to reveal pros and cons of a product is a family who will be exposed to mountains of poisons. When you call manufacturers to inquire about their finishes, beware of customer service agents who think that their finishes would have to be at least low-VOC or the government would not have allowed them.  I run into this type of customer service agent all the time. They assume that their superiors would not make an unsafe product for children, so they say what they think they have to say to reassure you. They read "meets all federal standards" in their handbook and they think that this means that the answer to any and all questions callers may ask is, "it is absolutely safe." Wrong! Ask to speak with someone on the technical side of things and get the name of the finish manufacturer so you can do your own research.

Even if a furniture finish claims to be VOC free, it can still have unacceptable levels of heavy metals, so be sure to ask the manufacturer about their testing protocols for heavy metals before being sold on a crib with a truly VOC-free coating. As far as the lead and other metals go, ask for the actual testing results, broken down by toxin, and compare the lead levels to California and Illinois levels. Passing the federal lead standard is not necessarily safe. Actually, according to scientists, there is no safe exposure level for lead. Yet another argument for finishing the crib yourself with a food-grade product. If you are opposed to finishing a crib yourself, see below for a ready-finished solution.  At the very least, ensure that the manufacturer is testing the finishes on each of their production runs. You do not want to end up with a crib finished with an exceptionally contaminated batch of paint, stain, or varnish. The only way for a children's furniture manufacturer to prevent such a situation is for them to test each production run, preferably using a third-party lab. This is especially crucial for cribs, since many children, like mine, like to gnaw on their crib when they cut teeth. I am a very light sleeper, so if my child found a way to quietly teeth on her crib rail while I was sleeping, trust me, it can happen to you! If I ever buy another crib, the only finish it will have on it is one I apply myself with a food-grade product!

There Are a Few Non-Toxic Cribs Out There!

A great option for a non-toxic crib is made by Pacific Rim. It is 100% solid maple and the finish consists of food-grade tung oil and beeswax. These cribs cost around $800, and do have an optional rail to convert them to toddler beds. Pacific Rim also makes other types of furniture you may want for your nursery. One caution though, I have seen Pacific Rim furniture for sale with Varithane used as a part of the finishing, so if you decide to buy Pacific Rim furniture make sure to state that you do not want any polyurethane in your finish. I have also read that the manufacturer will sell their cribs unfinished if the customer desires. I would also double check on the construction of the mattress platform. If they are using fiberboard when you inquire, then you will probably want one of the cribs from the manufacturer mentioned below instead. There is typically a 5-6 week wait for this crib, so order early.

In comparing prices for the Pacific Rim crib across the internet, I recently discovered a California merchant called GreenCradle, who offers a wide selection of cribs that are truly non-toxic. Aside from the Pacific Rim crib, the rest of GreenCradle’s cribs seem to be exclusive to GreenCradle. They have a nice selection–most builders of non-toxic cribs offer only a single style. Their cribs are all 100% solid wood and made in the USA. The only finish product used on GreenCradle’s cribs is food-grade Linseed Oil, (a.k.a., Flaxseed Oil, as in the stuff you can buy in pill form in the supplement aisle). GreenCradle states that their Linseed Oil is extracted without use of solvents or heavy metals, and is free of petroleum and other chemicals. It emits no VOCs and is also made in America. GreenCradle’s cribs start at $845, and many have optional conversion kits so the crib parts can later be used as a toddler bed and as a headboard for a larger bed. This brand seems worth every penny–especially since their cribs can be used indefinitely as headboards. The product descriptions on this seller’s site make it clear that they are well-researched and have child safety at the forefront of their minds.

As far as an ideal brand sold at brick-and-mortar stores, I have to say that the only one that I have found that comes close to Pacific Rim and GreenCradle is Romina. Romina states that their finishes are water-based, free of lead, VOC, formaldehyde, and "other toxic emanations." Romina cribs are solid wood and they use only "organic glue." Romina cribs are priced from $800-$1200 and are typically available at specialty children's furniture stores. However, I would not even buy a crib from Romina without grilling them regarding testing data for their finishes.

What if I Do Not Have $800 to Spend, but I Still Want a Safer Crib?

If you do not have $800 to spend on a 100% responsibly manufactured and finished crib, do not despair. There are several options that are much safer than the vast majority of cribs out there. I like simple designs, so here is my favorite: Ikea sells a solid beech wood crib, called the Sniglar, unfinished, for $69.99! At that price you can definitely afford the gas to drive to an Ikea (relatively) near you! Simply finish the crib with a food-grade linseed oil or food-grade tung oil and you have a largely, solid wood crib with a safe finish.

(Do not slather just any linseed oil or tung oil on your furniture! There is some deceiving marketing with these products. I will be posting soon regarding non-toxic wood-finishing and will give product recommendations at that time.) The platform that holds the mattress in the Sniglar is made of press-board, but this is still much preferable to an entire crib made of press-board. Typically to avoid a press-board mattress platform you have to spend quite a bit of money, and even then it is rare to have a metal platform. As for the type of glue used, if any, on the Sniglar, you would have to call Ikea. However, even if they are not using a safe glue, the Sniglar crib is world’s safer than 99% of the cribs out there.

If you do buy a crib with a press-board mattress platform, you can leave the platform in your garage or on a covered porch for a few months so it will not off-gas into the air in your house. You could also attempt to cover both sides and all edges completely with a VOC-free paint or sealer to attempt to seal the VOCs in the press-board. However, I have read that not all paints and sealers have the ability to lock in the VOCs, and I do not know whether there is a safe paint/sealer that has this ability. If you do decide to attempt to paint or seal the press-board to seal in VOCs, you should still allow the board to air out in your garage or on a covered porch, after applying the coating, for a few months before the baby is born. I have also heard of people wrapping the mattress platform in polyethylene or polypropylene sheeting to serve as a vapor barrier (it is now rather easy to find an inexpensive PEVA shower curtain with which you could do this job–do NOT use a vinyl shower curtain).  I assume you would just wrap the board like a gift and seal tightly with packing tape on the bottom of the board, but sometimes packing tape smells like it releases VOCs of its own. I have also heard that it is possible to buy a sheet of high-quality hardwood plywood, and cut it to fit as a replacement for the fiberboard. Columbia Forest Products Purebond Plywood, made with a safer, very low emission, soy-based glue. Purebond plywood is now available at Home Depot and comes in a variety of thicknesses, so replacing to the same thickness as what came with your crib should be relatively easy.

Another option for a finish-it-yourself solid wood crib is Angelline's Della 3-in-1 convertible crib, which costs $355, including both shipping and the rail needed to convert it to a toddler bed. Since some of the surfaces on this crib are quite large, I would verify with the manufacturer that there are no composites used prior to purchasing. I cannot find any information regarding the construction of the mattress platform, so you would have to call the manufacturer.

A third finish-it-yourself option is the Million Dollar Baby/DaVinci Jenny Lind, which costs about $238. This crib is convertible, but the toddler rail is typically sold separately. I have read that DaVinci cribs are made of solid wood, but I am unable to find any claims as to the safety of their finishes, aside from the industry-standard and worthless “non-toxic” claim. I would stay with their unfinished model if you want a Jenny Lind-style crib. I do not have any information regarding the construction of the mattress platform on DaVinci’s Jenny Lind crib, but I do recall some of the DaVinci cribs having metal mattress supports when I was shopping for my daughter’s crib, so it is worth a call to the manufacturer.

Buyer Beware: Eco-Friendly Does Not Mean Healthy ... Sometimes it Doesn’t Really Even Mean Eco-Friendly

There are many crib manufacturers that claim to make eco-friendly or “green” cribs. Among these are Pali and Ouef. However, at this time, these manufacturers, and others following their “eco-friendly” lead, make entire cribs of CARB Phase 2 compliant press-board. As discussed above, this does not mean that the press-board will not emit VOCs, it only means that the levels of formaldehyde (one of many VOCs) emitted are under a certain level. Oeuf uses water-based glues and claims that their finishes are water-based and VOC-free. However, because Ouef does use press-board and does not state that their finishes are subjected to third-party testing for toxins aside from VOCs, I would pass on this brand. Oeuf cribs start at around $500, which is a bit steep considering they would be a compromise in terms of safety assuredness.

Pali currently has a couple of models that are solid wood, with the rest of their models containing press-board that is CARB Phase 2 compliant. Pali states that they test their finishes for lead content with every production run, via an independent third-party laboratory that uses Illinois standards. Illinois standards are more strict than federal standards. Prior to buying from Pali, I would be sure that they are also testing for other heavy metals and toxins. Pali cribs start at about $399. Again, in the case of Pali, it seems like you can get a much safer crib for your money. You could finish Ikea’s Sniglar crib with an organic food-grade oil for significantly less than you would spend on any of Pali’s cribs, and most of their cribs are press-board.

What Kind of Crib Did We Purchase Back in 2009?

When we bought our crib, I was only aware of the issues with press-board and had no idea about all of the other points mentioned above. At the time, I only knew enough to search for a solid wood crib. I assumed the government had our back on the safety of finishings on children’s furniture. We ended up buying a Stork Craft crib that I found online marked down to $90, from $300. It was made of solid wood, and the company had assured me that the paint was “non-toxic.” When the crib arrived, it had absolutely no chemical odor, so we decided to keep it. To be on the safe side we decided to air it out for the 6 months until our baby was born. We do not have a covered porch, nor do we have windows in our garage that we could leave open. So ... we put the crib, along with all of the baby’s other pieces of new bedroom furniture, in her freshly VOC-free-painted room. We installed an exhaust fan in the window, sealed around the fan with weather-stripping, closed the heat vent to the room and the door to the room, and left the window open with the exhaust fan running 24-7 for over 6 months. Based on what I know now, our crib was obviously not ideal. If I could have a do-over, I would marry rich and buy a GreenCradle crib. Just kidding, I would buy the Ikea Sniglar, finish it with food-grade tung oil, and replace the platform with Purebond plywood. I would likely wrap the plywood in PEVA (using packing tape that had no odor) to serve as a vapor barrier just-in-case.

What if I had no Clue About Any of This and Already Bought a Crib?

Do not despair! When it comes to VOCs fresh air is your best friend. Even though it is a pain in the rear, I highly recommend that you purchase all of your baby’s nursery furnishings as soon as possible, preferable six months or more before the birth. Put it all in the nursery and leave the windows open. If you are afraid of insects or rain getting in, then install a window fan like we did and leave it on high exhaust at all times. The window fan cost us $15 at Wal-Mart.

If you have already had your baby, air is still your best friend. Open the nursery windows as often as possible to let those VOC gasses out. Open as many windows in your house as often as you can. Studies have shown that even in areas with high levels of air pollution, the inside air is more toxic than the outside air. If you are re-using a crib from a prior child, then the good news is that your crib has already off-gassed quite a bit. The fresh air rule still applies though.