With any luck, your little one spends a lot of time in the nursery sleeping, which means baby spends hours and hours swaddled in blushing or bluesy bundles of crib bedding. But the eco-unrest associated with baby's bedding, as well as the health risks posed to baby's sensitive skin from chemicals on those fine fabrics, are enough to keep any concerned parent up at night. In fact, Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Toddler On The Block, says that the number-two cause of eczema rashes for babies (behind food allergies) is irritation caused by detergents]] and chemical treatments on crib sheets and other bedding.
The eco-ills of baby bedding—from crib mattresses to crib sheets to baby blankets—are associated with the procurement of materials to make the bedding, the manufacturing of the bedding itself, and chemical treatments applied to the finished product.
Fibers and fabrics
Baby bedding can be made from natural fibers (like cotton, wool, and bamboo) and synthetic materials (like polyester, acrylic, and nylon). Synthetic fibers are made from petrochemicals, which are non-renewable resources and contribute to the environmental hazards associated with petroleum procurement and processing, including disruption of land and ocean habitats and pollution of air and water supplies.
Conventionally grown natural fibers have their own environmental impacts, most notably chemical pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, and dyes, bleaches and treatments. Untreated and organic fibers minimize some of these environmental costs because they are grown and processed with sustainable agricultural processes.
Conventional cotton farming uses only about 3 percent of the farmland around the world, but consumes 25 percent of all chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil microorganisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife—including fish, birds, and livestock. Additionally, up to 70 percent of seeds used in conventional cotton farming in the United States are genetically modified. Billions of pounds of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are also applied to cotton crops, leading to runoff that creates zones in waterways that are void of much life.
Organic cotton is grown chemical free, avoiding the contamination associated with conventional agriculture. However, its production still requires significant amounts of irrigated water. Along with eschewing the use of chemicals and GMOs, organic cotton production nurtures soil health and fosters biologically diverse agriculture.
An additional benefit to organic farming is the contribution it makes to slowing climate change. A study of conventional versus organic farming methods by the Rodale Institute discovered that organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration. In agricultural applications, the more organic matter that is retained in the soil, the more carbon is sequestered. While conventional farming depletes organic matter through the use of chemical fertilizers, organic farming uses animal manure and cover crops, which actually build soil organic matter.
Organic farming further reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by using 37 percent fewer fossil fuels than conventional farming. The Rodale Institute estimates that if all 160 million acres of corn and soybean farmland in the US were switched to organic farming methods, it would be equivalent to removing 58.7 million cars from the road, and would satisfy 73 percent of the proposed US Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction.
As reported by the Organic Trade Association's 2004 Manufacturer Survey, sales of organic cotton fiber grew a total of 22.7 percent from 2002 to 2003. Sales peaked at around $85 million. In the 2007 Manufacturer Survey, it was estimated that the total sales of organic fiber and clothing in the US would grow an average of 40 percent each year from 2007 to 2010.
From 2000 to 2001, an estimated 14 million pounds of organic cotton was harvested in 12 countries—about .03 percent of total global cotton production. The United States and Turkey were the top growers, producing 79 percent of the world's organic cotton supply (along with China and India) for the 2005-2006 harvest. Domestically, Texas is the leading organic cotton producing state. In the US alone, 6,577 acres of organic cotton were planted in 2005. Despite being a leading producer, there are only 12 organic-certified cotton producers in the country and domestic cotton farming—both conventional and organic—is in decline.
To gain official organic certification in the US by a government-approved certifier, cotton must adhere to the same criteria established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for edible crops, since cotton seeds and oil are commonly used in food products: 95 percent of the ingredients must be grown in soil that has been free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years and the product cannot contain GMOs. However, it is possible for a product that is USDA "Certified Organic" cotton to contain 100-percent organic cotton but also contain harmful chemical dyes and finishes.
Wool is a sustainable resource because the sheep are not killed; they are merely shorn each year. Since pure wool is naturally fire resistant, fire retardant chemicals are not required. Organic wool production differs from conventional wool production in two important ways: the sheep cannot be dipped in insecticides to ward off pests like lice and ticks, and the grazing land provided for sheep cannot be overcrowded. This helps curb two environmental risks associated with livestock production—groundwater contamination and soil erosion due to overgrazing.
An environmental danger of the wool industry that organic certification cannot control is enteric fermentation—or livestock belching and flatulence—a major contributor to global climate change. In New Zealand, for example, 90 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (methane, in particular) result from enteric fermentation, primarily from sheep.
Bamboo is a sustainable crop: bamboo grass is one of the fastest growing plants in the world, with some species growing 30 inches every day. Bamboo traditionally does not require pesticide and fertilizers. Bamboo plants contain a natural antifungal, antibacterial agent (called Bamboo kun) that acts as a sort of internal pesticide, which negates the use of pesticides. Bamboo kun is also present in the fabric and controls bacteria growth on the skin, as well as moisture levels. Bamboo fabric is a natural insulator and can be worn in both the summer to keep cool and the winter to keep warm.
Found most commonly in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, bamboo cultivation provides some important environmental benefits. It has net-like root systems, unique leaves, and dense litter on the forest floor, which protects against soil erosion and reduces rain runoff. A bamboo stand will release 35 percent more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees and can sequester up to 12 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare.
Manufacturing and finishing
Bedding textiles endure multiple processing steps, including spinning, dyeing, weaving, scouring and sizing. If they are made conventionally, caustic chemicals are used to remove all color before the fabric is dyed with chemically-derived, petroleum-based dyes. Throughout the manufacturing process, the fabric is flushed with water, which creates a potential for wastewater contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and bleach, which produces dioxin—a human carcinogen. Baby blankets that boast no dyes or bleaches, as well as plant- or water-derived dyes, are not subject to this chemical-intensive processing.
The textile industry generates and consumes an estimated 1.3 million tons—the equivalent weight of 441 average-sized cars—of dyes and other synthetic coloring agents. These dyes are largely petrochemical-based and contain lead, mercury, and cancer-causing heavy metals like chromium VI, arsenic, and cadmium. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes a number of dyes to be hazardous due to threat of groundwater contamination in the vicinity of manufacturing plants. Alternatives do exist and are commonly classified as “low-impact” and "eco-friendly."
Baby bedding is often treated with chemical finishes to repel water and stains, or to make them fire-resistant. These finishes can off-gas formaldehyde. Additionally, their manufacture releases perfluorochemicals (PFCs) or dioxin, which may harm the environment or your body.
Flame retardant chemicals are actually bonded into fabric composition, and can include halogenated hydrocarbons (chlorine and bromine), inorganic flame retardants (antimony oxides), and phosphate-based compounds. According to the EPA, chlorine causes environmental harm at low levels, mostly to organisms living in water and soil. Likewise, phosphates are a major source of pollution in lakes and streams.
Even certified organically grown fibers may be coated with a chemical fabric finish. To go chem-free, read labels carefully and avoid products with these keywords: permanent press, stain-proofed, water-proofed, water-repellent, or those that have been treated with flame retardants.
The growth in popularity of bamboo products has been detrimental to the natural forests in countries where bamboo grows. Existing forests are often cut down and replaced with bamboo plantations, negatively impacting biodiversity. Bamboo can also be "over-managed" with chemical weeding and periodic tilling of the land to clear undergrowth. These practices increase erosion and produce a single-species plantation over large areas. In some growing areas, the intensive use of pesticides, weed killers and fertilizers also affects the environment by releasing toxins into soil and waterways. For textiles, there are no guidelines comparable to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood, which insures that a forest has been harvested in a sustainable fashion. However, FSC has begun limited certification of bamboo for wood products.
Related health issues
Contact with the chemicals used in textile dyeing can lead to dermatological and respiratory allergies. A smaller number of dyes used in textile manufacturing contain the chemical benzidine and are believed to be carcinogenic. Although fiber-reactive dyes are believed to be gentler on the environment they contain sodium carbonate, a source of asthma and other lung ailments.
Formaldehyde, when present in the air, can trigger watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat; nausea; coughing; chest tightness; wheezing; and skin rashes. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) notes that formaldehyde can cause nasopharyngeal cancer (cancer of the nose and throat). Formaldehyde does not completely wash out in the laundry but the emissions can be reduced by about 60 percent.
- carbon sequestration: The process by which carbon is captured (in the form of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere and incorporated into soil, ocean, and plant matter.
- formaldehyde: A flammable reactive gas belonging to the VOC (volatile organic compound) family of chemicals. It is widely used in personal care products, building materials, insulation, and home furnishings. Ingestion of the chemical can cause severe physical reactions, including coma, internal bleeding, and death. The US Department of Health and Human Services considers it a probable human carcinogen.
- genetically modified organism: A GMO is created by merging the genetic make-up of two organisms, resulting in a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings and they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.
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