The purity test is also the concern of the modern parent. My own mother worried, consumingly, about safety, but there were fewer known hazards when I was growing up, and fewer options. She couldn’t hire an inspector to test our indoor air quality; she couldn’t even buy an organic receiving blanket. But my mother did insist on seat belts (she would come out into the driveway when other people picked me up and check for them in their cars), just as I insist on organic milk. There is satisfaction, even absolution, in knowing you’ve done everything you can do to make sure nothing goes wrong.
One afternoon I visited Laura Fitzgerald, a 34-year-old copywriter who recently entered the “absurdly complex world of cloth diapers.” (In addition to accumulating in landfills, conventional disposable diapers raise scrotal temperatures, which might increase the risk of infertility or testicular cancer.) We sat on the living-room floor of her South Slope apartment with our children. Last year, Fitzgerald bought a Quinn Felted Shag Rug from Pottery Barn. After several months, it still smelled strongly of chemicals; it also turned out fist-size dust bunnies. With her daughter about to start crawling, Fitzgerald decided to replace the rug. She narrowed her nontoxic options down to two. One was basically “a very expensive organic wool rug harvested from the underbellies of yaks in Tibet that you can only get at ABC Carpet & Home in their green-friendly room.” The second was what Fitzgerald ultimately chose: Flor tiles, which are to young parents’ apartment floors as tapestries once were to their dorm-room walls. Squares of carpet are delivered to you in pizza boxes; you assemble them into a grid. When you’re done with the tiles, you can ship them back to the company, which will recycle them. This pleased Fitzgerald as much as the tiles’ low VOCs.
Almost without exception, the mothers I spoke to emphasized the planetary good of their choices. They had embraced green ideals before having kids. Now they stand at the intersection of anxiety and ecology, their environmental consciousness inseparable from their worries about their children’s health. If you buy an ExerSaucer at a stoop sale, you not only prevent the introduction of another ExerSaucer into the world, your child benefits from the activity center’s having already done a lot of its off-gassing. I found that whenever I remembered to think of toxins in terms of the planet, I felt more serene. My worries seemed easier to manage once they proceeded from virtue. I poured Seventh Generation powder into my dishwasher knowing it wouldn’t pollute my kitchen, nor the groundwater. I teetered on the cutting-edge of environmentalism, not the brink of folly.
Then again, the holistic approach can get confusing, because green isn’t always good for you. While Fitzgerald and I talked, our children played with three-inch-square Flor samples. My son tried to get whichever one her daughter had, and she put them all in her mouth. “She has this fleece blanket in her crib,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s made from recycled material, but it occurred to me there could be something bad for her in there.”
Thirty-five-year-old architect Julie Torres Moskovitz also found “anxiety in the research” when she was setting up her son’s nursery in a loft in a former shellac factory in Williamsburg. “Okay, it’s recycled, but then the glues in there aren’t good. Or, the product might be good for the environment in terms of reusing post-consumer materials, but then it might have a resin in it that will off-gas in your home.” Torres Moskovitz, who’s started her own line of ecofriendly, nontoxic children’s furniture, writes about her efforts in an essay in a new book called The Complete Organic Pregnancy. (I also contributed a short essay to the book, which I expected to be mostly about food, but it turns out that an organic pregnancy means being aware of the chemical adhesives in your carpet as well as the wax on your apple.) The book’s co-authors, Deirdre Dolan and Alexandra Zissu, discourage contact with all kinds of toxins—including swimming pools, because of the chlorine, and pedicures, because of the phthalates. Other books in the nontoxic genre focus on cleaning products. I recently bought a guide called Naturally Clean, written by Jeffrey Hollender and Geoff Davis, the founder of Seventh Generation. If you are going to use conventional cleaners in your child’s bedroom, Hollender advises, it would be better not to “clean at all!” (“A mind-set that rigid is toxic,” says Sarah Rivkin, a Park Slope acupuncturist and mom.)
Even a parent’s best efforts can’t make a home completely pure. People who think a lot about this stuff will often tell you there are 80,000 chemicals in the world. According to Manhattan inspector Wayne Tusa, the most sophisticated tests cover only a very small number of them. “You could spend $50,000 trying to test for all chemicals at the parts per billion level,” he says.