Indulge Your Paranoia

Photo: Peter Rad

When I was pregnant, I was always smelling weird things and calling my husband at work in a panic. The odors were rarely detected by anyone other than me—I never received the validation of the mayor or the New York Times. Then one winter day something really happened: There was an oil spill in our basement. We were living on the second floor of a brownstone in Park Slope. I went out for a morning walk, and while I was away the fuel truck came and added heating oil to a tank that was already full. The oil overflowed onto the basement floor, and the odor wafted up into our apartment. I was pretty sure that I was inhaling something other than “the normal house smell,” as my husband reassured me in an e-mail, but my impulse to flee was counteracted by my periodic resolution not to give in to my paranoia. So I opened the window and plugged in the space heater and did some work. Late in the afternoon the housekeeper working downstairs got sick from the fumes. Our neighbor called the fire department, and soon their trucks were parked in a line outside, closing off our block, and I cried on our stoop. We moved out for a month and found a company called Microecologies to test the environmental health of our apartment.

On the day of the test, two guys showed up, and to start, one of them pulled out a pen and took down a “history.” It was not unlike our first appointment with the OB/GYN, where we’d been deferential, double-checking dates, answering with the extra I don’t know if this matters, but … While an assistant attached collection tubes and air pumps to the moldings around several doors, the company’s founder, Bill Sothern, sat with me and my husband in the living room. He had lots of advice. He asked us how far we kept the windows open, and when I indicated a gap of about three inches, he seemed to approve. (In his line of work, fresh air is more important than saving energy.) He also said that he didn’t like to drink water sold in soft plastic bottles, because he believed the chemicals in the plastic could leach. Instead he drank out of glass. He left the pumps to collect our air overnight. By the morning the tubes were filmy, but the lab test showed that our apartment was fit for habitation. I came to think of it as “the purity test.”

Up to that point, this was a kind of purity I hadn’t thought too much about. I was already mindful of the purity of my food. But while I was busy shopping at the Greenmarket, other New Yorkers were discovering untreated cotton mattresses and odorless paint. Pure food? Check. Pure—everything? That’s what comes next.

This kind of purity attracts the chemically suspicious. Its adherents distrust anything “unnatural.” They fear air freshener, fire retardants, and fabric softener. They know which substances have already been banned in European countries. Their inner peace is achieved by the studious avoidance of all hazards. But their quest itself—and here I speak from experience—is characterized by bursts of panic. There’s a lot of uncertainty: What does it mean if something is classified as a “likely” carcinogen? Is our children’s low-level, daily exposure to any number of chemicals perfectly fine, or causing subtle neurological damage? And if these things aren’t good for us, what are they doing to our overtaxed planet? Like many paths to serenity, this one involves renunciation: in this case, of household items like nonstick cookware, waxed dental floss, and water bottles.

Whenever I told the story of the purity test, I always included the example of how Sothern was even more neurotic than me: He won’t drink water out of plastic bottles. But, as a lot of my neighbors could have made clear, Sothern isn’t so unusual. The e-mail list “Park Slope Parents” has about 6,000 members, including some from surrounding neighborhoods like Ditmas Park and Prospect Heights. The philosophical orientation of the list falls somewhere between UrbanBaby and MotheringDotCommune. Preschool admissions are discussed, but not household income; co-sleeping, but not sewing your own menstrual pads. A few months ago, during a lively online discussion about the ethics of buying bottled water, a mom named Cary Walker casually mentioned a reusable, kid-friendly bottle—“a good alternative to plastic if you are concerned about its safety”—from a company called Sigg. What are Sigg bottles? I thought. While I Googled, other people e-mailed Walker directly, and hours later she posted again. Sigg bottles were aluminum, with a liner so they couldn’t leach, and they were available at 3r Living, a green-household store down on the Slope’s Fifth Avenue. After Walker’s post, sales of Sigg bottles at 3r Living increased 100 percent.

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.

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.)

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.

Perhaps finding peace in an impure world means learning to deal with a little contamination. The medium-density fiberboard shelves in your custom closet will off-gas formaldehyde; your child will visit a friend’s home and be offered nonorganic milk. The neighbors will polyurethane their floors; you will use the laundry machines in the basement immediately after a lover of bleach. Everyone will be better served if you don’t flip out.

Lately, I’ve been flipping out less. It’s not because I buried myself in scientific studies and drew informed conclusions about phthalates. It’s simply because of the inevitable demands a child places on your life. Every day, I have less time to Google and more-immediate things to worry about. (The day my son faceplanted at the playground, I could not have cared less about PBDEs.) My approach to the purity problem is piecemeal: I do what I can, and try not to worry about the rest. We’re repainting our apartment with no-VOC paint. I’ve warned my husband off the no-iron shirts at Brooks Brothers, which—despite the label that says ALL COTTON—are chemically treated. And if we have another child, I might like to try the ecofriendly gDiapers. But Pampers seem to be working fine for my son. Besides, he now lifts his shirt and points to the character printed on the waistband when he wants me to turn on Sesame Street. Perhaps I should be worried about the fact that my child, who is under the age of 2, watches TV. There are those who would argue that Elmo is causing subtle neurological damage. I just don’t see the harm in a little Bert and Ernie. But every mother has her own purity test.

What household toxins make you paranoid?
Asked on an afternoon in the West Village.

They’re repointing all the buildings in Manhattan, including mine, and we get no notification about what’s coming out of these buildings and anything that we should do to prevent things from coming inside our apartment. You know, we had to sign off on making sure we had bars on our windows but nothing about this major construction that’s leaving dust and rubble and junk everywhere.
—Allison, 35, stay-at-home mom

We live in a really old industrial building where the vacuum tube and the vinyl lids for vinyl records and stuff like that was invented. So one of our concerns is trying to research what sort of chemicals were used.
—Tad, 33, musician

I tend to worry more about the things I can’t control like the pollution in the air and the secondhand smoke on the street. At home, I try to use organic products. Some people say that doesn’t even make a difference, but it makes me feel better.
—Jamie, 37, stay-at-home mom

I just read recently about the phthalates in soft plastics and that some soft plastic toys have gotten rid of them. I’m not real uptight about it.
—Michelle, 32, stay-at-home mom

My philosophy is that I grew up with a lot of plastic toys and chemicals and I turned out all right. Obviously, I lock the cabinets so my son can’t get into anything, but my maid cleaned this morning with the standard cleaning products I get from the grocery store.
—Laura, 38, stay-at-home mom

Indulge Your Paranoia