Thirty years ago, no one knew that asbestos causes chronic lung disease and cancer, or that vinyl chloride from plastics is carcinogenic and mutagenic. Wall-to-wall carpeting was chic and desirable, and babies sitting or crawling on elegant beige carpets are an advertising staple when it comes to diapers, toys and bedroom furniture.
In fact, most of these carpets contain toxic chemicals that neither you nor your baby should be breathing. Underlay and glue used in carpeting, as well as carpets themselves, emit formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. The levels of formaldehyde in the air are highest if the carpet is new. Carpets are a haven for dust, mites and asthma-aggravating microfibers. Vinyl flooring contains chlorinated paraffin, known carcinogen, and phthalates that can disrupt vital hormones, cause testicular and breast cancer and in developing fetuses, and lead to health problems such as slow lung development. Plywood laminate floors (including MDF, veneer flooring, and “engineered real wood”) are glued together with formaldehyde-loaded glue. If removing traditional carpeting or laminate is not an option, air the nursery thoroughly and put a lot of detoxifying plants in it, such as devil’s ivy, nephthytis, and rubber tree.
A word of caution about underfloor heating: very trendy and desirable, this type of central heating uses radiant heat provided by electric cables or circulating heated water. Even though heated floors were used since Roman Empire, it’s not the most environmentally friendly type of heating since most of the energy heats nearby concrete. More importantly, electric underfloor heating generates electromagnetic field of the frequency of 50Hz. Special cabling is usually used, which helps reduce – but not eliminate – this effect. That’s why it is not recommended to use electric underfloor heating in children’s rooms as they usually play on the floor, and the impact of electromagnetic field is greatest up to 30 cm from the floor. Also, when heated, engineered wood, laminate and synthetic underlay emit toxic odors at much greater rate.
When we bought our new home, it was carpeted wall-to-wall, from loft to ground floor. That “wonderful new home smell” was so strong that my baby started coughing and crying and I had headaches and vivid dreams for two days. So we are now in the market for green floors. Most likely it’s going to be sustainably sourced solid oak or parawood (non-rainforest Malaysian oak, or rubber tree), or maybe solid bamboo with latex or cork underlay. Solid wood is naturally warm. If you choose a brushed or hand-sculpted variety, they won’t be slippery for those little feet. Just make sure you pick really solid planks, not the ones that are made of layers of compressed and glued together smaller pieces of wood.
It may be wise to un-carpet your stairs, too. So many moms made a great fall slipping on soft padded stairs. Carrying a 20kg bump in front of you or clenching to a wriggly infant does little to improve your body coordination. I am no exception, so carpeted stairs had to go. Strip off the carpeting, have the stairs sanded and stained to match the rest of the floors or simply paint them with an eco-safe floor paint (white is extremely trendy and affordable!), then glue on strips of rough sanding paper or special rubber bands on the edge of each stair for better grip. Wear flat-soled sneakers or soft driving moccasins with rubber soles at home. Don’t even try to manage your balance in bed socks on your new floors, especially when carrying a baby! Buy some slipper socks with rubberized feet.
Other green flooring options include cork, non-glued laminate and natural linoleum. Nature’s Carpet (check the address in the appendix) makes carpeting of natural, untreated wool and uses jute, a hemp product, for backing. Pergo has a line of laminate floors made from compressed wood and paper with low-toxic resins and organic inks. The materials that they use are reclaimable, PVC-free and are never obtained from tropical, virgin forests. Less green but eco-friendly types of natural carpeting and padding are made from recycled 2-liter PET soda bottles.
It can be very time-, money-, and effort consuming to replace flooring. If chemical-free, “green” hardwood floors are beyond your budget, at least install air cleaners on each floor, clean the ducts and keep the windows open so fresh air could flush out the chemicals. As soon as you can afford it, install new floors at least in the nursery and in your own bedroom. For the next few years these floors will be your baby’s playground. Baby’s head will be just a few inches away from the toxins-spewing, dust-mites-breeding floor for hours every day. Would you like her to play on a floor of grass or a floor of toxic gas?