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Is it Safe: Hidden Dangers Lurking in Your House

Get the scoop on the top 10 household hazards you’ve been overlooking.

Now that you've got a little one to take care of, it goes without saying that baby's safety is your number one priority these days. But protecting your tot isn’t all just about installing baby gates and locking your medicine cabinets. Sometimes the biggest risks to baby's wellbeing at home are the ones you can’t even see. Melissa Moog, founder of Itsabelly baby planners and co-author of Itsabelly's Guide to Going Green With Baby walks us through some of the biggest offenders, and explains why we can't risk ignoring them.

1. The paint on your walls

Nowadays, most paints are made with low amounts of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) or even none at all; but even in small doses, VOCs can be carcinogens, which can irritate the respiratory system, affect the eyes, and sometimes cause nausea and headaches. Since baby's immune system is extra-sensitive in the newborn stage (and chemicals are 10 times more toxic to babies than adults), Moog suggests steering clear of them when you can.

What you can do now: Don't worry, we're not suggesting you repaint your whole house before baby arrives (as if you don’t already have enough to do). But going for a non-toxic paint at least in the nursery is definitely a safe bet. As for other areas of the house, keep rooms well ventilated so that baby's not constantly breathing in fumes, and if your house was made before 1978 (when paint still had lead in it), have the walls checked for asbestos, ASAP.

2. Your makeup drawer

"Beware of fragrance in skincare products," warns Moog. (We know, not exactly the advice you want to hear.) “Fragrance-laden cosmetics often contain phthalates," she explains, "And since manufacturers aren’t required to actually list the fragrance ingredients on their labels, it's impossible to know sometimes what’s inside." Scary thought, huh? What's worse, even labels that claim to be "organic" or "natural" can still be made with toxic ingredients, so don’t be fooled by the front of a label – make sure to scan the list of ingredients on the back too, if you really know what’s in there. And it doesn't just end with cosmetics. Some nail polish brands are also known to pack their products with chemicals like DBP, formaldehyde or toluene, which have been linked to fetal development issues.

What you can do now: As a rule of thumb with cosmetics, you can always trust a product that uses natural oils for fragrance. But unfortunately, there's a whole laundry list of unsafe (and semi-unpronounceable) ingredients you should probably steer clear of, like: Parabens, Phthalataes, Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate, 1, 4 Dioxane, Polythlene Glycol PEG/PPG, Propylene Glycol, Triclosan, or Oxybenzone. As for nail polish, you don’t have to avoid mani-pedis forever (phew!). Just make sure to check the label to ensure it’s DBP, formaldehyde, and toluene-free. Think this is all about your safety? Think again. The most common kind of poison exposure in children six and under is from cosmetics and personal care products.

3. Your cleaning products

According to the American Association of Poison Control, 92 percent of all poison exposures happen at home – and 53 percent of those cases happen to children under the age of six. That’s why keeping your chemical exposure (and baby’s) to a minimum is ideal, to say the least. A 2008 study even found that moms-to-be who were exposed to chemicals found in bleach, air fresheners, and other cleaning products increased their baby’s chances of developing asthma by 41 percent.

What you can do now: Read your labels. Ingredients to steer clear of include: Sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid, butyl cellusolve, formaldahyde, bleach, ammonia, sulfamic acid, petroleum distillates, sulfuric acid, lye, and mopholine. For more info, head to the U.S. Department of Household Products Database. You can lookup almost any household product on the market, find out what's in it, and find out whether or not you should be using it. But your best bet is to go green, and check out all-natural cleaning products from companies like Shaklee, Seventh Generation, Method, and Mrs. Meyers.

4. The air quality

Believe it or not, the air we breathe inside is actually three times more polluted than the air we breathe outside. Skeptical? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s actually an open secret -- indoor air ranks as one of the top five hazards to human health. And it’s no wonder why, between all the dust trapped in our carpets and couches, and the toxins lurking in the paint on our walls or the cleaning products in our cabinets. But it doesn’t just end there. Even those air fresheners we spend so much money on to make our houses smell fresh and clean aren’t actually doing us so much good in the end – they’re just pumping our air with more airborne fumes we probably shouldn’t be breathing in all day.

What you can do now: Maintaining airflow throughout your home is key, so when the weather’s nice, open as many windows as you can or spring for an air filter. Got pets? Groom them regularly to cut down on dander. Have drapes? Be sure to clean them regularly, too, since they’re total dust magnets. Same goes for the carpet.

5. Mold

Whether it's in your bathroom or in your basement, any bit of mold in your house is never a good thing and breathing it in can lead to some not-so-fun symptoms like runny noses, sneezing, coughing, and itchy eyes. (No picnic for you or baby.) But in some cases, mold exposure can also cause more serious reactions like skin rashes and even asthma attacks, which could lead to a trip to the doc.

What you can do now: Eliminate moisture in areas that are prone to dampness, like interior bathrooms and basements, by keeping them clean and dry and installing a dehumidifier or overhead vent. Also check for leaks under your sink, in the ceiling, or in air ducts – even the smallest amount of water seeping into your house can cause mold to crop up in unexpected places.

6. Plastics

By now you've probably heard all about those new laws banning BPA (Bisphenol A) in baby bottles – but if not, here’s a quick recap: The chemical, which makes plastic shatterproof, has been linked to breast and prostate cancer, early puberty, and behavior problems, which sparked legal action. But the whole controversy over plastics doesn’t just end at BPA – time to add Phtalates and Polyvinyl Chloride to your vocab list. Phtalates, which make plastic soft, are often found in children’s toys, household products, and medical supplies, and have been blamed for messing with hormonal balance, not to mention causing reproductive and neurological damage. And Polyvinyl Chloride -- also known as PVC or vinyl -- often contains lead and can cause cancer, along with harming the immune and reproductive system. PVC is used in a lot of common household plastics, like shower curtains, pipes, and even toys.

What you can do now: While some states have already outlawed the use of BPA in baby bottles, you probably want to lay off buying anything with BPA in it. According to Moog, Polycarbonate plastic also contains the chemical, and is usually marked with the number 7 recycling symbol; while PVC is typically marked with the number 3. So which recycling codes go on the “safe” list for plastic containers? Try to remember to purchase only #1PETE, #2 HDPE, #4 LDPE and #5PP. (Or just make life simpler and keep a cheat-sheet in your wallet.)

7. Your water

Despite the EPA's strict enforcement of the Clean Water Act, toxins are unfortunately still able to creep into our water systems, putting us at risk for sickness. Wondering what kinds of contaminants can make their way into your water? Get ready: They can range from industrial waste to pharmaceuticals to radioactive substances. Yep.

What you can do now: Investing in a water purifier – whether it's a free-standing machine, a faucet attachment, or a pitcher with a filter – is definitely a good idea. But you can also do small things to make sure it’s safe before you use it, like running the tap for 60 seconds first to flush out contaminants, or cleaning the inside of your faucet more regularly. (Not really sure where that water you’re drinking is coming from in the first place? Find out.)

8. Your carpet

Though you may not think about it, carpets are loaded with chemicals – they're in the synthetic fibers, the gluey backing, and even the stain-resistant treatment. In fact, that new carpet smell you may love so much (just us?) is actually your carpet giving off a chemical gas known as 4-PC. But even after the smell of that new carpet fades, the impact of its chemicals still linger, hanging around for months and even years after the carpet's been installed. And aside from emitting chemicals, carpeting is a virtual haven for dust mites, dander, and dirt, which altogether can really stir up your allergies.

What you can do now: You don’t need to go tearing up your wall-to-wall carpeting anytime soon, but cleaning it often and using high-efficiency vacuum bags will help get rid of dust mites, dander, and other particles carpets tend to trap. And if you're just about to install new carpeting now, make sure it's aired out first and contains non-toxic glue. Of course, if you have the option, it may be best to spring for some hardwood flooring, but that's not always possible.

9. The nursery

Those toxic VOCs aren't just found in paint cans – they can also creep up in several other unsuspecting spots in your house, including your furniture, mattresses, and even bed linens. That's why it's especially important that when creating baby’s nursery, you pay extra-special attention to every detail.

What you can do now: Aside from choosing non-toxic paint and airing the carpeting out first (or going with hardwood), the first order of business is choosing the right mattress. Moog suggests avoiding vinyl, PVC, and polyurethane foam to keep PBDE flame-retardants from entering baby's body. But if you can’t swing an organic mattress, don’t sweat it: Let the mattress "gas-off" (or air out) for a couple of weeks before baby even sleeps on it. Then top the new mattress with organic sheets and a mattress pad protector. As for the crib and changing table, if you’re buying new, go for ones with low-VOC finishes and preferably nontoxic glues.

10. Your fridge

Sorry -- now that baby's here, it's time to nix that habit of letting take-out containers pile up until you run out of fridge space. The CDC estimates that the U.S. has 76 million cases of food-borne illness each year – partially because of the way foods are stored and handled. Also, in extreme cases, pesticides found in food can cause long-term health problems (like birth defects and even cancer), which can be worse for your tot than for you, since baby's internal organs are still developing.

What you can do now: Play it safe -- latch the fridge doors closed with a baby-proofing lock to keep baby out once he hits the walking stage. Then help keep everyone healthy by making sure your fridge is not only clean, but also organized (e.g. take extra care not to let raw meats mix with anything else). Moog says it’s a good idea to switch to organic when possible, since vegetables and fruits can be coated in nasty pesticides, while meats can be packed with hormones. Even though the EPA checks for pesticides in foods like apples, potatoes, chicken, and beef, you should still always rinse your fruits, veggies, and meats first – just to be on the safe side.

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