It’s not as if every kid in the Slope were clutching a Sigg. Plastic sippy cups predominate. (The other day at the Third Street playground, a little boy mistook my son’s Sigg bottle for a sandbox toy.) Lots of people here just roll their eyes at this stuff. Gregory Sofio, who owns Sproutkidz on Union Street, says that when people walk by his sign touting organic baby clothing, he often hears them say with a snicker, “What are you going to do, eat it?” Sofio’s store is across the street from the Park Slope Food Co-op, where, over the past year, I’ve attended two different seminars on the theme “How Your Home Can Hurt You.” They were attended not by young mothers like myself but by people with unusually heightened sensitivities. (“When I’m in my bed, I feel like there’s an electrical current in me” is a typical quote.) There’s still a fringe element to all of this, an association with the unhinged. People often mention the Todd Haynes movie Safe (the chemically sensitive person’s Philadelphia), in which a fragile Julianne Moore flees to the desert seeking sanctuary from domestic toxins. But gradually, the pallor of chemical sensitivity is lifting.
“It used to be people who were sick,” says Paul Novack, the founder of a store called Environmental Construction Outfitters of New York that sells products like Safecoat paint. “That’s changed a little now. A good part of the market is young couples with young children who don’t want to have their child get sick.” These couples are “usually somewhat educated Internet-savvy people who read a lot,” many of them from a swath of Brooklyn he describes as stretching “from Williamsburg to Red Hook to Park Slope.”
I wish I’d heard about Novack’s store a year ago, when our apartment was painted in regular old Benjamin Moore. Now I knew that the paint “off-gasses,” meaning it discharges chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It’s possible that some of these vapors are “neurotoxic.” I resolved never to use conventional paint again. Perhaps I was being overly cautious, but many of the mothers I spoke to—and it is mostly mothers who obsess over this stuff—were sympathetic. After only a couple of conversations with them, my awareness had expanded to include such hazards as “endocrine disrupters” like “phthalates.” Sure, I’d read about these things in “Science Times.” But other people had read the same article, and not only could they pronounce phthalates, they’d decided to do something about them. They had already translated their worries into small, daily choices.
What does it mean if something is a “likely” carcinogen? Is my child’s low-level, daily exposure to any number of chemicals perfectly fine, or causing subtle neurological damage?
Consider, for instance, the vinyl stroller cover. “Vinyl is evil,” says Jenny Collins, a Park Slope mother who works as a jeweler. “It’s evil in production”—fabricators are exposed to dangerous substances—“and it’s evil when you use it and it off-gasses.” Among the chemicals in vinyl are phthalates, which have been linked to early puberty.
If the vinyl cover doesn’t make you nervous—whether because your child is under it so briefly or because you think obsessing over these things is a waste of time—well, you might be right. But after talking to Collins I decided to abandon our rain shield, which had always seemed stifling anyway. The new system broke down on the first rainy Saturday morning I rolled my son home, soaking, from the park. In our apartment I peeled off his wet clothes. Compared to my son’s red legs, endocrine disruption seemed vague. Collins hasn’t yet found the ideal workaround. “Originally it was a comedy,” she says. “I tried to avoid going out in the rain completely.” A clip-on umbrella worked sometimes, but not on windy days. Collins thought of using peva, a type of chlorine-free plastic, to make her own rain shield. (Ikea makes shower curtains out of peva; Collins’s own shower curtain is nylon woven cloth.) Now she uses a large sunshade: “Unless it’s pouring, it works okay,” she says.
Next, consider the crib mattress. Collins bought an organic one, which is not uncommon. But her children wound up sleeping with her and her husband on their own “toxic mattress.” The same thing happened to another mother I talked to, Moria Holland of Clinton Hill, whose son ended up in her bed instead of on the organic mini co-sleeper mattress she bought from an online store called Ecobaby. Conventional mattresses are often treated with fire-retardant chemicals, the most notorious of which are PBDEs. Their production has been partially curtailed in Europe and will be banned in California by 2008. PBDEs are found in many household items, from the computer on your lap to the couch on which you sit. They slough off onto dust, making them impossible to avoid.