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Ask Mindy: Should I Be Concerned About My Toddler's New-Bed Smell?

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Got a green dilemma? Ask me! I'll be answering a new question each week.

Q: Help! I just bought my toddler a new bed made of engineered wood that has a strong smell. The company says they abide by the California formaldehyde regulations, but I don’t know if other chemicals they use could be just as bad. What should I do to reduce the exposure? My son has allergies and asthma, so I’m particularly concerned about it. —Wendy Lawrence

A: You are right to be concerned about possibly toxic fumes from the glues that bind together the wood particles in your child’s bed. That strong smell can indicate the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde,  a “potent carcinogen and respiratory toxin,” according to Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Mount Sinai Center for Children’s Environmental Health and coauthor of Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World. VOCs readily vaporize out of products at room temperature, and are even more volatile in warm weather, which makes summer a good time to tackle reducing exposure. And for a child with asthma and allergies, any strong smell can provoke reactions such as watery eyes, runny nose, and breathing difficulties.

In 2007, California issued the world’s strictest standard limiting toxic indoor air emissions of formaldehyde from particleboard, plywood, and medium-density fiberboard (also known as MDF). Specifying the use of low-formaldehyde adhesives and resins, the limitations went into effect in 2011. All new furniture must meet the standard, and verification is done by independent third parties rather than by the companies themselves. If you bought your child’s bed in California, or the company can show you a certificate of compliance with the California law, you can be assured that any formaldehyde levels do not exceed health limits.

In 2010 Congress enacted federal formaldehyde standards based on California’s.  These will become effective in 2013.

But if you still have a strong smell, it may come from the adhesive binders in the particleboard, from the paint or other finish, or from a combination of both. What to do? Let in lots of fresh air. And, if possible, have your child sleep in another, non-smelly bed—or on a mattress on the floor—until the new-bed odor has disappeared. This may take time. It was Dr. Landrigan, one of my long-time advisers, who taught me that new products containing VOCs, such as paints and particleboard, can release unhealthy fumes for quite a while. In his book, he suggests ventilating your house well every day for as long as several weeks “to minimize the buildup of formaldehyde and other chemicals…”

For more information on reducing children’s exposures to toxic chemicals in household products, check out Mount Sinai's Children's Environmental Health Center.

Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s eco expert. She regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.

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Comments (3)

  • Is there any way to put the furniture out in the sunshine for a few days to see if that helps?

  • I would encourage every family to test their home for formaldehyde. You can purchase a passive formaldehyde badge on-line for $39 including the lab analysis. This is the same method that the Sierra Club used initially to discover the infamous FEMA trailers.

    California Air Resources Board release a study on Dec 15, 2010 that found that 98% of homes tested exceeded the State's recommended residential concentration of formaldehyde.

    The California formaldehyde regulation was the strongest in the USA but NOT the strongest internationally. Many countries have tougher formaldehyde emission standards than CA and soon the USA.

    The California standard is NOT based on health effects. Instead it was designed to control the amount of formaldehyde escaping homes and reaching the outside air. The standard was set by determining what the typical manufacture was producing and setting that as the standard. Eventually, that level will be cut in half.

    To make matters worse, California allows manufactures to continue to sell non complaint material.

    Although the testing is done by third party labs, the company still gets to self select the material that is sent to the lab for test. This means a company can be in compliance by selecting low emitting product for testing while still using high emitting product. Research out of Canada found that the level of emissions can easily vary by a factor of ten within the same patch of material and by a factor of three across a single 4x8 piece of material.

    Formaldehyde is considered to have poor warning properties. This means you can have negative health effects long before you can smell it. The typical person starts smelling formaldehyde at about 500 part per billion (ppb). California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessments recommends not exceeding 7 ppb.

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