I first read about PBDEs when I was pregnant, in the famous—to anyone then lactating, or about to—breast-milk article in the New York Times Magazine, in which the writer, Florence Williams, sent her milk off to a lab, wondering if it might contain such a high concentration of PBDEs that formula would be safer. Williams decided in favor of breast milk, but to me the outcome wasn’t as interesting as the fact of what she’d done: taken a purity test. The idea that we bring our children into an impure world is not new; nor was the attempt to measure that impurity at a microscopic level. My OB had given me brochures from a company called Genzyme, which would screen my blood for errant genes. It wasn’t hard to imagine a future in which my stack of pamphlets might also include one from a company that could detect high levels of PFOA, which is used to make nonstick coating, in my blood. Genetic or chemical, the impulse is the same. At one end—pre-baby—you use the information to evaluate risk. And at the other, you seek in it the answer for what’s gone wrong.
Recently an environmental inspector named Laurence Molloy received a call from a father of an autistic, elementary-school-age son. Could Molloy come and test the apartment, because maybe the conditions there were a contributing factor? On the morning of the inspection, Molloy stood in the loft space and asked the nanny where the boy spent most of his time. Because of the apartment’s location in Tribeca, Molloy was especially concerned about 9/11 dust, which contains a variety of heavy metals. He strapped on a black mask and turned on an air pump. The air tested fine, but he found mercury, cadmium, selenium, and lead in the window wells: “the signature of 9/11 dust,” says Molloy. After an abatement was performed, a retest of the apartment came back clean. It’s impossible to say, of course, whether the dust contributed to the boy’s symptoms. Bill Sothern, the inspector who went through my apartment after the oil spill, says he thinks it’s “a stretch to tie autism” to conditions at home; asthma and allergies are the real concern.
The vast majority of people who call inspectors are interested in the basics: mold or lead. One father who had his home inspected for lead characterized the test as “a lot less Slope progressive” than anxieties about VOCs or PBDEs. It was a telling distinction: Lead is a known hazard; the rest of this stuff is on the fringe. Will concerns about chemicals eventually become mainstream? It could take a while. Lead paint was thought to pose a danger to children as early as 1904, but its residential use wasn’t banned in New York until 1960. Now if you live in New York, your child is tested for the presence of lead in his blood at 1 year of age. The case against, say, Bisphenol A is still being argued. (Bisphenol A is thought to leach from polycarbonate plastic, which is what some baby bottles are made out of. The National Institutes of Health will assess its hazards later this year.)
Even if you want to err on the side of precaution, there’s no need to immediately discard all of your infant’s bottles. The best way to purify your place is simple: proper housekeeping. Household dust is full of hazards, including PBDEs, and children consume up to 100 times more of it than adults. (The statistics about toxins tend to portray children as turbo vacuums.) But conventional cleaning products are notoriously toxic; last fall, New York State banned their use in public schools. At home, it’s easy enough to switch to Seventh Generation if you’re the one who does the housework. But if your housekeeper, like mine, would rather use Soft Scrub with Bleach, it seems selfish to enforce your preference. “ ‘All you need is vinegar and elbow grease’: I wish that were true,” says one Park Slope mother who returned to regular cleansers after realizing her housekeeper was going to the dollar store and buying her own supplies, like “the generic version of 409, even more horrific.”
Everyone is quick to mention that these are the worries of the well-off. “You can focus on these things when you don’t have to worry about bigger issues,” says Cary Walker, the local popularizer of the Sigg bottle. It does help to have some time on your hands if you’re seeking someone to replace the formaldehyde-laced plywood bottom of your child’s crib. (Bettencourt Green Building Supplies in Williamsburg will do this, often with wheatboard, which just sounds safe, like a teething biscuit.) And testing indoor air quality is expensive; our bill was about $1,000. (Asthma and allergies, which are directly linked to indoor air quality, disproportionately affect poor children in dilapidated apartments; Microecologies provides free services to low-income clients.)