kimberly schmidt mugBY KIMBERLY SCHMIDT — The words “Honey, I’m pregnant” are often followed, in six to nine months, by Severe Nesting Syndrome. Every corner of the house is scrubbed, organized and decorated. Paint colors are chosen, and the merits of strollers and diapers are discussed with more vigor than an election-year debate.

In these preparatory stages, parents inadvertently make their first big mistakes. Many paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and are highly toxic. And that beautiful convertible sleigh crib? Chances are that underneath the perfectly coordinated linens lies a flame-retardant mattress – also made with toxic materials, to conform to legally required flammability standards for bedding.

And so begins the life of an American baby, immersed in alarming levels of dangerous chemicals from his or her first days on earth. What’s more, these harmful chemicals are bio-accumulative, stored in our children’s tissues, the foundation of an ever-increasing toxic burden.The average American home interior is five to six times more toxic than the outside air quality. We live in Code Red interiors most of lives.

At a Hyattsville Preservation Association spring meeting, green interior designer Robin Buck shared with members some alternatives to carcinogen-laden products. The challenge, she said, is knowing which products to avoid – and where to find safer options.

Buck had several suggestions for homeowners planning to renovate. Among them:

Reuse: Always the best decision for the environment is to use what you have – or what someone else no longer needs. For renovation projects large and small, check out the local architectural salvage warehouse Community Forklift.

Pre-existing toxins: The fine asbestos filaments that are a health hazard are generally harmless if left undisturbed. But during a renovation, asbestos must be disposed of by certified professionals.

Paint: Look for zero-VOC paint products. Some brands have no VOCs in the base, but the yet-to-be-added pigment adds a high concentration of toxic substances. Ask before mixing begins. (HPA members, remember you get discounts at Will’s Decorating, a Benjamin Moore dealer. Ask for the Natura line.)

Kitchens: Instead of granite countertops, which may contain radon, consider using a product like PaperStone. Made of compressed recycled paper, the finished product looks remarkably like slate and is extremely durable; stains can be easily sanded out. For floors, wood is a comfortable, forgiving and renewable surface. Look for eco-friendly sealants and wood that is FSC-certified. (That means it meets Forest Stewardship Council requirements for sustainable harvesting.) When shopping for plywood, look for the formaldehyde-free kind.

Bedrooms: For mattresses, look for natural latex foam wrapped in wool batting with a cotton cover. Wool is a naturally self-extinguishing fiber (no flame retardants required). It also moderates body temperature and is inhospitable to dust mites.