Jeff Howell on the considerations to take when preparing bedrooms for babies
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Everyone decorates the bedroom for the new baby. It's what you do. New life, new wallpaper, new paint, new carpets, new lights, new curtains. All of these can contain man-made chemicals which may be harmful to health. Health hazards caused by toxins are estimated in proportion to the body weight of the recipient. So an infant weighing, say, four kilograms, will be affected by a dose of contaminant chemical twenty times more than an adult weighing 80 kilograms. Is it a good idea to expose new born babies to freshly applied decorating materials? I don't think so. Indoor air pollution is now the subject of widespread research, and a great many decorating and furnishing materials are known to contribute to the total toxic load of any enclosed indoor space.

At last year's 7th International Conference on Indoor Air Quality and Climate, in Nagoya, Japan, papers were presented detailing the effects on health of common indoor air pollutants including solvents, formaldehyde, tobacco smoke, ozone, benzene, insecticides and fungicides. Some of these occur naturally, and are concentrated within homes by the enclosed nature of the built environment; others are artificially introduced in furnishing and decorating materials.

Organic solvents such as white spirit, for example, are the liquid medium used to apply paints, stains, varnishes, adhesives, polishes, damp-proofing fluids and timber treatment chemicals. The solvents are thinner than water, and so can penetrate into porous materials even when they are wet. After application, they evaporate away, having delivered their cargo into place. But this can cause health problems for months afterwards; aside from the intoxicating effects valued by glue sniffers, solvents can damage the nervous system, digestive organs, the heart and circulatory system, the respiratory system, and have been linked with cancer and reproductive hazards. Even water-based paints can present a risk; some of the pigments used to provide the colours are metal-based, and toxic if ingested.

Wallpaper pastes, plasters and plasterboard can all contain fungicides, to inhibit mould growth. Fungicides are toxins, and however small the quantities, they may still represent a health risk in a enclosed space. Many timber products, such as chipboard and MDF (medium density fibreboard) contain formaldeyde, a powerful irritant linked with lung disease, which is also released by a number of foam materials, including cavity wall insulation.

Many homes have been treated with wood preservative chemicals, sometimes more than once. These include fungicides, to prevent rot, and insecticides, against woodworm attack. Even new timber from the builders' merchants may have been chemically treated, as a precaution against mould and insect damage in transit or storage. Most new carpets, curtain fabrics and furnishings have also been dosed with insecticides, to guard against moth damage in the warehouse.

Insulating materials can also create health problems. Asbestos, of course, is notorious, but mad-made fibres, such as those used in mineral wool loft insulation, can cause respiratory problems and even cancer. So, faced with this daunting chemical cocktail, how can you guard against possibly health hazards?

And, since many pollutants find their way into the human body via house dust inhaled into the lungs, thorough vacuum cleaning is the single most effective measure against respiratory problems; the Dyson Dual Cyclone system is the most effective at removing the smaller sized particles (including dust mite faeces) which are responsible for most childhood asthma.

But, most importantly, ask yourself why you want to decorate the new baby's room in the first place. Does the new arrival really care what colour the ceiling is? Better to give the place a thorough spring clean and leave the interior decor until the occupant is in a fit state to appreciate it.