I bought a new foam crib mattress, discarding it when my daughter spent her first night there after sleeping in a bassinet for a few months. That first night in her new crib, she tossed and turned all night long, exposed to the neurotoxic fumes outgassing from the foam. Fortunately for her, I knew the symptoms of central nervous system agitation, and I removed the offending fumes from her life the next day. Often, a mother-to-be paints the nursery, first exposing her baby to the fumes in utero and then from the outgassing paint when the baby sleeps in the room after birth. The nesting impulse is powerful before the birth of a baby, and I am not advocating that parents squelch this natural desire. Instead, they should be aware of chemical exposure and put their decorating efforts into nontoxic approaches (for example, non-VOC paint, natural carpet, and organic bed linens), which won't increase their baby's burden of chemical exposure. Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet: Guide to Natural Baby Care by Mindy Pennybacker and Aisha Ikramuddin is a good book on the subject and is full of ideas and resources.
Paint and carpeting
Want to take the first step in ensuring a healthy nursery? Find out whether there is lead paint on the walls! Lead paint was not sold after 1978, but the walls of any home built prior to 1978 could be problematic.
As cozy as carpeting may appear to be for a nursery, it can be a reservoir of dust mites, mold, mildew, and VOCs. If there is old carpeting in the nursery, pull it up and replace it with untreated hardwood floors or floors treated with a water-based, low-VOC finish. If carpet is a must for the nursery, choose completely untreated carpeting with natural latex or jute backing.
Much of today's furniture is made of pressed wood, something to avoid because of the formaldehyde in the glues that will continually outgas for the entire life of the piece. Choose real wooden furniture instead. Yard sales offer abundant supplies of simple furniture for very little cost. And what about a changing table? If it is going to be covered with any kind of plastic, the older the better, and the more used the better, as long as it is still safe and sturdy. You want the plastic to be completely outgassed before putting it in the nursery.
Toxic crib mattresses
In a study of six brands of crib-size waterproof mattress covers conducted by Anderson Laboratories, all were found to emit toxic fumes in various degrees, and some caused acute toxicity to the respiratory tract of male mice. Five of the mattress covers were made of polyvinyl chloride covered with cotton or polyester layers. The remaining cover was made of polyolefin. Chemical emissions included suspected carcinogens.
Crib and bassinet mattresses made of organic, natural materials are now widely available online, through catalogs, or in natural product stores. For the largest selection, go to your favorite online search engine and type "organic baby." Retailers who are likely to sell organic bedding for babies are also likely to offer safe accessories, including nontoxic toys.
If buying an organic mattress isn't feasible, enclose a standard crib mattress with a cotton barrier cloth. Avoid plastic or polyurethane encasements. To prevent moisture from seeping onto the mattress from leaking diapers, invest in an absorbent "wool puddle pad," designed to insert between the sheet and mattress. Avoid pillows until the baby is at least 1 year old, and after that, invest in a natural fiber, organic pillow.