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In this post I will focus on the areas of potential toxicity in baby cribs and how to look for a non-toxic crib. I will talk about specific brands and models of cribs in my next posts. This guide is helpful for parents who would like to understand what material may be used for making cribs so they can make more informed buying decisions.
The structural safety of cribs is not the focus of this report. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and ASTM International (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials) do a very good assessing crib safety, and parents should consult them and other sources related to safety concerns. Keep in mind that on June 28, 2011, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission issued new safety requirements that resulted from infant deaths caused by crib drop down sides. When you buy a non-toxic crib, make sure that it is compliant with the latest 16 CFR 1219 and 16 CFR 1220 standards. For information on how to buy a safe crib visit, you should consult other sources, including BabyCenter.com, the National Safety Council, and the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association.
So what are the areas of concern in a crib from a toxicity standpoint? There are two: wood (or so-called wood) and wood finish. Healthy Child Healthy World and Washington Toxins Coalition along with many green mom bloggers including Organic Mom blogger Alexandra Zissu urge parents to buy cribs from solid sustainable wood and non-toxic wood finish.
Why Solid Wood for a Non-Toxic Crib?
Despite the fact that cribs look like they are made from wood, believe it or not, it is almost impossible to find a non-toxic crib under $1000 made from solid wood. What are they made of then?
- Plywood/Veneer: an engineered wood panel, made by gluing thin slices of wood veneers together. There are 2 types of plywood – hardwood plywood and softwood plywood. Hardwood is made for indoor purposes with urea-formaldehyde (UF) glue; softwood is made for exterior and structural applications with phenol formaldehyde (PF) glue (http://healthychild.org/easy-steps/look-out-for-formaldehyde-in-childrens-furniture/). Note that formaldehyde-free plywood is available, e.g. PureBond plywood.
- Particleboard: wood shavings, wood chips, and saw dust glued together, using formaldehyde-based glue. UF glue is used for making particleboard and it needs more glue than plywood. Softwood (usually pine or fir) is typically used for particleboard. Particleboard may emit terpenes, an organic compound contained in some plants, including conifers. Some people are sensitive to terpenes. Terpenes can also react with ozone in the air to form harmful substances (http://www.healthyhouseinstitute.com/a-620-Man-Made-Wood-Products).
- Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF): another type of engineered wood, similar to particleboard but stronger than particleboard because in addition to glue it is put together by applying pressure and high temperature. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), MDF contains a higher adhesive-to-wood ratio than any other engineered wood and is generally recognized as being the highest formaldehyde-emitting pressed wood product (http://www.epa.gov/iaq/formaldehyde.html).
As you can tell by now, the common denominator in these three types of wood products is formaldehyde-based adhesive. Formaldehyde can be of two types. Ironically, the more toxic one, urea formaldehyde, is used for indoors. You probably heard of formaldehyde several times as it has a very notorious reputation. The EPA has been working hard towards establishing better formaldehyde emission regulations. For more information on that, visit the EPA website. Let’s understand the risk associated with formaldehyde exposure. The EPA says the following on the subject of formaldehyde.
“Formaldehyde, a colorless, pungent-smelling gas, can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans exposed at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million). High concentrations may trigger attacks in people with asthma. There is evidence that some people can develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde. It has also been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans. Health effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; severe allergic reactions. May cause cancer.” (http://www.epa.gov/iaq/formaldehyde.html)
That does not sound good and notice that a level above 0.1 parts per million is considered an elevated level. According to the Healthy House Institute, formaldehyde is a potent mucous membrane irritant. As such, acute (short term) formaldehyde exposure concentrations > 0.05 ppm can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and sinuses. In very sensitive people (and that includes babies), the respiratory symptoms may lead to asthma. Joel Hirshberg from the Green Building Supply company and others, including Alexandra Zissu, the author of “The Complete Organic Pregnancy,” recommend applying AFM SafeCoat sealer to seal formaldehyde emission to make a non-toxic crib (http://www.greenbuildingsupply.com/Learning-Center/Paints-Coatings-LC/AFM-Safecoat-Sealers-for-off-gassing).
I think it is important to note here that formaldehyde is not only emitted by engineered wood, including hardwood plywood paneling, cabinetry, and furniture, but there are many other sources of formaldehyde in homes including building materials, smoking, household products, the use of un-vented, fuel-burning appliances like gas stoves or kerosene space heaters, permanent-press qualities to clothing and draperies, glues and adhesives, paints and coating products. Moreover, some houses still have urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) installed in the wall cavities of their homes as an energy conservation measure. That was a popular measure in the 1970s. For a point of reference, average concentrations in older homes without UFFI, the EPA states, are generally well below 0.1 (ppm). In homes with significant amounts of new pressed wood products, levels can be greater than 0.3 ppm (http://www.epa.gov/iaq/formaldehyde.html).
The reason I am telling you about various sources of formaldehyde exposure is that, I think it is important to understand so we parents can take a broader perspective on protecting our child from formaldehyde exposure. It would be counterproductive to put a lot of effort and money in finding the best non-toxic crib while, let’s say, redoing the hardwood floors in the nursery with formaldehyde-emitting materials.
Going back to non-toxic cribs, it would be so handy if manufacturers could tell us what level of formaldehyde a crib will emit and for how long. By the way, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) considers it a toxic air contaminant with no safe level of exposure (http://www.saferchemicals.org/resources/chemicals/formaldehyde.html). Unfortunately, crib manufacturers often say they do not know the concentration level and as for the length of time, they say that there are no studies. I looked all over and most sources say “for years.” From what I gathered, 5 years is a conservative estimation. Therefore, strictly from the standpoint of formaldehyde emissions, it is good to buy a non-toxic crib second-hand. However, you have to decide whether you are willing to forgo the latest safety crib standards.
Other ways to reduce formaldehyde exposure include proper room/house ventilation. Because formaldehyde emits at higher rate in high temperature and humidity, the EPA recommends to use air conditioning and dehumidifiers to maintain moderate temperature and reduce humidity levels (http://www.epa.gov/iaq/formaldehyde.html).
As formaldehyde has received the negative popularity, more and more manufacturers turn away from urea formaldehyde-based to phenol formaldehyde that is less toxic and emits formaldehyde at considerably lower rates than those containing UF resin. The formaldehyde-free alternatives include methylene diphenyl isocyanate (MDI) and polyvinyl acetate (PVA). Nonetheless, while they have lower emissions, both of these resins, like formaldehyde, are derived from fossil fuels and hence still have toxic chemical problems associated with their manufacture. The most promising alternative is the soy based adhesive Columbia Forest Products has developed for plywood called PureBond – it is billed as being non toxic during use, renewable, and cost neutral (http://www.healthybuilding.net/formaldehyde/index.html). However, there are some environmental concerns during its manufacture. In short, at this point there has yet to be a product that can replace UF that does not raise some environmental health concerns. For more information about different glues, visit Healthy Building Network.
In conclusion, solid wood cribs are the best alternatives as they have a minimum amount of glue used to make them. To minimize exposure to potential toxicity of glues, look for PureBond glue or water-based glue certified by Greenguard or “Green Seal.” Always ask what type of glue is used for a non-toxic crib you are thinking about buying.
What is a Truly Non-Toxic Crib Wood Finish?
First of all, I would like to thank Anna Hackman, an expert in this area I met through our mutual affiliation with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, who helped out a great deal in this section. Anna is the editor of Green Talk, a green living, gardening, and business blog, a LEED AP and she built an eco-friendly house 8 years ago geared towards using non-toxic materials.
The second source of potential toxicity is non-toxic crib wood finish. When a manufacturer states in the product description that the wood finish used on their cribs is non-toxic, do not get too excited. There are a lot of questions to ask that manufacturer before you can decide whether you are comfortable with exposing your baby to the so-called non-toxic crib.
The first thing that is important to know here is that there is no legal definition of what non-toxic wood finish is. From what I can tell after talking to manufacturers of cribs with so called non-toxic crib wood finish is that they are referring to the fact that the wood finish has less toxic chemicals in parts per million than the JPMA (Juvenile Products Manufacturer Associations) allows. Two things here: any wood finish is not truly non-toxic (unless it is made of food grade oils) and as JPMA is an industry association (i.e. its membership and money comes from manufacturers) its toxicity standards might not be as strict as those of an organization that has consumers’ needs at heart.
The standard by which paint and wood finish toxicity is measured is VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in grams per liter. VOCs are a large group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. While most people can smell high levels of some VOCs, other VOCs have no odor. Odor does not indicate the level of risk from inhalation of this group of chemicals. In other words, if the crib you bought does not smell bad, it does not mean it is a non-toxic crib. (http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/voc/).
It is important to note here that VOCs are used to measure both indoor and outdoor pollution. When you are told that some paint or wood finish is of “low-VOC” or “zero-VOC,” the reference might be made to the outdoor pollution, specifically the formation of photochemical smog. The EPA warns that the norms currently used for the labeling and certification of paints and wood finishes are not standardized. The government has not established the ground rules to create standard test methods to rate indoor products. (http://www.epa.gov/iaq/voc2.html).
What are wood finishes usually made of? Here is a list of ingredients that may be present in non-toxic crib wood finish.
- Pigments or dyes to add color and hide flaws, many of which contain toxins
- Resins (aka binders) to hold the pigment to the wood surface, such as acrylics, vinyls, alkyds, cellulosics, epoxies, polyurethanes, and oils, many of which are toxic
- Solvents or thinners that hold the wood finish in a liquid form such as alcohols, ketones, glycol ethers, petroleum distillates (mineral spirits, toluene, xylenes, and naphtha), and turpentine, many of which pose health problems for humans and aquatic life (http://www.earthpaint.net/nontoxicpaintinfo.php)
- Additives that impart additional properties, such “water clean up,” easily wash off into the rivers, lakes and ocean; they are often not listed on the labels; some of which are carcinogens, teratogens, mutagens, and endocrine disruptors (http://www.earthpaint.net/nontoxicpaintinfo.php)
As you can see, there is nothing non-toxic about these wood products. So-called non-toxicity is a matter of degree. Beginning in the 1970s, increased concerns over the impact of certain chemicals on human health and the environment accelerated a trend toward the development of high-solids (lower-VOC) finishes and water-based products. Water-based polyurethane vanishes are less toxic then oil-based ones. Non-petrochemical solvents are less toxic than crude-oil byproduct solvents such as ethylene glycol.
Despite that, so-called non-toxic finishes continue contain harmful chemicals and there are not many studies done for how long wood finishes may off-gas once the “non-toxic” cribs are in homes. (“Off gassing” is the process by which a substance is released into the atmosphere – think “that new-car smell”). And remember that not all VOCs are detectable by the sense of smell. In an article by Earth Paint, it is explained why polyurethane wood finish might be off-gassing for several years. Because of the tightness of the double urethane bond it takes many months for all of the mineral spirits solvents to come off (http://www.earthpaint.net/Wood_Finish_Cribs_Polyurethane.php). The author of the article highly recommends avoiding polyurethane wood finishes for cribs.
In conclusion, there are several issues facing consumers when trying to evaluate whether a wood finish is toxic, including the facts that wood finish labeling rules are ambiguous, there is an insufficient lack of studies for VOCs emitted indoors by wood finishes, and many manufacturers do not disclose the ingredients of their so-called non-toxic crib finishes.
Luckily, there are several truly non-toxic crib wood finishes that include shellac, beewax, tung oil, and linseed oil (flax seed oil). If they do not contain any additives, they are truly safe.
Shellac: a clear vanish made of the secretions of the lac beetle used as a resin and a denatured alcohol used as a solvent. The alcohol dries very fast (which makes it difficult to apply), and once it is dry there is no toxicity left in the shellac. The Green Home Guide recommends avoiding shellac with methanol. Tung and linseed oil finishes penetrate wood and do not form a hard film like shellac or polyurethane. For that reason, they might be not as durable and require more frequent refinishing.
Unfortunately, very few manufacturers use these natural non-toxic crib wood finishes. The use of natural wood finish and solid wood goes hand in hand but it comes with a hefty price. One way to avoid it is to buy unfinished cribs and do it yourself. I have to warn you here, not many manufacturers sell cribs unfinished, probably due to the lack of control over the manufacturing process (bad news) and/or the use of wood that looks too unattractive to sell unfinished.
For more information on natural wood finishes and how to do it yourself if you decide to forgo a questionable finish and buy an unfinished product, visit http://ecofriendlybuilder.com/Eco-Paints-and-Finishes/Non-Toxic-Wood-Finish.aspx
What can we conclude here? The potential sources of toxicity in a crib are the wood material they are made of, glue, and wood finish. It is always good to understand what materials were used to make the non-toxic crib before buying it. The product descriptions like “non-toxic” finish do not mean much. The information is not readily available but the more questions we consumers ask, the more answers we will receive, eventually, and ultimately we’ll have a wider selection of non-toxic cribs.