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How to Green Your Kids Room

How to Green Your Kids Room

Simple steps to reduce your kids’ exposure to environmental hazards where they sleep and play

The majority of Americans have at least 300 different environmental chemicals in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These include flame retardants in crib mattresses, formaldehyde in furniture, bisphenol A (BPA) in food, and phthalates in toys and toiletries; it’s enough to make even the most laid back parent anxious. Feeling overwhelmed? Here are some simple things you can do to help green your home, starting with kids’ rooms and playrooms.

Reality Check

The most common dangers at home are lead, pesticides, flame retardants, endocrine disruptors, cleaning products, and air pollutants. Before you start freaking out, give yourself a break—you can’t possibly stop your children from coming into contact with these chemicals completely. “I know that feeling of being the frontline of protection for your family, and it’s exhausting,” says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. “It’s not possible, and it’s not necessary.”

Beware of Lead Paint

If your home was built before 1978, have it inspected for lead paint. Dust and flakes are dangerous to children, who breathe in more than adults and put their hands in their mouths a lot. Make sure any renovations are properly sealed, and check paint regularly for chips. Vacuum and wipe down surfaces weekly, using a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. My son’s lead levels became elevated last year after a workman scraped off lead paint from a door in his room without taking precautions.

Don’t Use Bug Treatments

A 2015 study found that use of household insecticides was connected to increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma in kids. Look for natural ways of controlling pests, such as blocking off access and vacuuming regularly. Never use pesticides in children’s rooms, and if you have to use them on your pets, keep them away from your kids and high-traffic areas for at least 24 hours.

RELATED: Beware BPA: The Harmful Chemical in Everyday Products

A Safe Night’s Sleep

“The one thing you should do in your kid’s room is buy a new non-toxic mattress,” says Maia James, founder of the website Gimme The Good Stuff and a healthy home consultant. Many conventional mattresses are made from petroleum-based polyurethane foam covered with vinyl containing phthalates and sprayed with flame retardants. All of these things off-gas while your child is asleep. Don’t use hand-me-downs; mattresses made before 2005 may contain polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), highly toxic fire retardants that are now banned.

There are lots of manufacturers who now make mattresses without flame retardants, and if you want to go even further, buy one made of natural materials such as cotton and wool and that has been certified by an independent body such as GreenGuard or Oeko-Tex. Don’t use pillows or changing pads that contain foam; replace them with organic wool or cotton instead. Finally, make sure you wash any new bedding, as lots of textiles are processed with dyes and formaldehyde.

Choosing Furniture

When buying kids’ furniture, the best choice is solid wood rubbed with oil and made with non-toxic glues. However this isn’t an option for everyone due to budget or decor. The biggest dangers are flame retardants in foam and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde from composite wood, paint, furniture glue, and varnishes. The good news is that all furniture is becoming safer, thanks to laws that limit off-gassing. Look for brands with low emission standards such as California Air Resources Board (CARB or European equivalents) and foam without flame retardants. Avoid products with stain- or water-resistant finishes, which can contain perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). There are low- or no-VOC paints and varnishes available, and if you have already renovated you can buy sealants to stop off-gasing.

Get a Wool Rug

Choose solid wood floors and natural flooring, as some carpets and their glues can off-gas formaldehyde and acetone. Avoid vinyl tiles (which can contain phthalates) and don’t forget rugs. “One simple thing I tell people to do is get a wool rug,” James says. Studies have shown that wool flooring absorbs formaldehyde and nitrogen, making it a great choice for kids’ rooms.

Use Air-Cleaning Plants

Put a spider plant or peace lily on your kid’s dresser—not only will it look good, it will also improve the air quality. “Houseplants are surprisingly effective,” James says. In 1989, NASA conducted a now-famous study that revealed many common houseplants were able to filter VOCs such as formaldehyde, ammonia, and benzene.

Swap Plastic Toys for Natural Materials

The good news is you don’t have to throw away all of your kids plastic toys, Lunder says. “The really toxic phthalates have been banned from kids’ toys, and plastics are pretty hard to avoid,” she explains. “It’s nice to minimize plastic, but it’s almost impossible to avoid.” Some plastics are marked with a recycling symbol and a number, to tell you what sort of plastic they are; avoid anything marked with a “3” or made from polyvinyl chloride or PVC (such as beach balls), as these often have phthalates in them. Get rid of soft plastic bath toys and books, and don’t let young kids put plastic toys in their mouths. Use toys and teethers made of natural materials, such as wood and cloth, instead of plastic. Don’t let kids play with polycarbonate water bottles or containers (marked with a “7” or PC), as these are most likely to contain BPA, or chew on electronics such as phones and remotes, as they can contain flame retardants. Finally, be careful with kid’s jewelry; it can contain lead and cadmium.

Clean Up Safely

Break out that vacuum regularly in kids’ rooms and play areas to get rid of toxins that collect in dust. Choose one with a HEPA filter and follow up with a wet mop as often as possible. With cleaning products less is more. “Disinfecting products are simply not necessary outside a clinical setting,” Lunder says. Many contain strong chemicals that cause asthma, skin irritation, and even cancer. Warm water and soap is enough for daily cleaning. For something stronger, look for active ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide or citric acid. Using microfiber cloths and mops will also make it easier to clean up without chemicals.

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Wash Your Hands

Get rid of the hand sanitizer by the changing mat and don’t use it on your kids’ hands. It may contain triclosan, trilocarbon, or fragrances, which are suspected carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Triclosan was recently banned by the Food and Drug Administration and is also found in antibacterial soap.

Lose the Air Fresheners

Throw away the air freshener, as it may contain phthalates among other nasties. James recommends a low-fi option: activated charcoal bags. Charcoal is a natural air purifier and may absorb some toxins, as well as bad odors. If you want to go one step further, buy an air filter such as the Austin Air Healthmate, which filters gases, odors, and particles. Finally remember to open windows often, as indoor air often contains higher levels of VOCs such as formaldehyde.

Activism for Change

Now for some good news: “Levels of BPA, triclosan, parabens, and some phthalate levels in blood have gone down between 2003 and 2014,” Lunder says. This is thanks to increased awareness and new laws and regulations. So speak up and support groups such as the Environmental Working Group that is campaigning to change legislation, and educate your friends and family to make smart choices. “It’s not a job that one person can do on their own, we have to change it on a national level,” Lunder says.

Chemical Glossary 

Flame Retardants

Found in polyurethane foam, such as nursing pillows, mattresses, changing pads, and car seats, as well as electronic items such as remote controls. Known carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors. A recent study found that levels in the bodies of children were nearly five times higher than their mothers.


Found in personal care products, soft plastic toys (especially polyvinyl chloride, or PVC), teethers, vinyl clothes, some paints, air fresheners (parfum), food, and plastic food containers.  Linked to a variety of health problems, including asthma, allergies, male infertility, and abnormal hormonal development.

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Found in plastic bottles and utensils, sippy cups, teethers, bottled formula, and canned food. Known endocrine disruptor that has been linked to breast cancer. Its replacement, bisphenol S (BPS), is also thought to be toxic.


Found in composite wood, furniture and carpet glues, and cleaning and personal care products. Known carcinogen. Causes asthma, eye and throat irritation, and allergies.


Found in antibacterial soaps, toothpaste, and hand sanitizers. Linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, liver toxicity, and thyroid dysfunction. Recently banned by the Food and Drug Administration for use in hand soaps.

Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs)

Found in waterproof and stainproof shoes and clothes, furniture, and carpets. Suspected to be carcinogenic and to cause liver and thyroid problems.


Used as preservatives in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals Some have been linked to endocrine disruption, sperm damage, breast cancer, and neurological and hormonal conditions.


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Emma Steven

Author: Emma Steven is a British freelance writer living in Manhattan with her husband, two small kids, and two cats. Previously the Manhattan calendar editor for, she writes about parenting and New York City. She has written dozens of parenting articles for NYMetroParents, and has also been published on and When asked about what she most misses about the UK she’s most likely to say British humor and least likely to say British weather. See More

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