ParentingInc. : Buying Peace of Mind

Non-Toxic Tots

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008

There's a six-week wait for a $15 stainless steel sippy cup made without harmful compounds. At the annual toy show in New York last month, retailers lined up to put in orders for a children's tea set made of recycled plastic milk jugs. And some big box chains are eager to start selling a $300 organic crib mattress that was tested in a special chamber to ensure it doesn't emit any dangerous gases.

Last year's recalls of lead-tainted toys alerted many parents to the possible presence of toxic substances where they least expected it: in their child's favorite toy. Entrepreneurs and national retailers learned a lesson too: Uncertainty over the safety of the everyday products that surround their children means parents are willing to pay handsomely for peace of mind.

All they have to do is look at the rapid growth of businesses that cater to chemical-conscious moms and dads. New parents -- a growing portion of whom are members of tech savvy and advertising-averse Generation X -- have turned to blogs to read up on the potential health effects of plastic additives such as phthalates and bisphenol A, and to track down products that contain alternative compounds, no matter how obscure.

To be sure, the families buying these products make up a small segment of the U.S. households with children under age 3, which totaled 12 million in 2006, according to the U.S. Census. But market researchers say their disposable income makes them influential beyond their numbers. They've helped spur growth in the multimillion-dollar market for baby furnishings, clothing, gear and personal-care products that would otherwise inch forward in lock step with the nation's not-so-fast birth rate.

Major retailers are taking notice. While the Food and Drug Administration last month said the health effects of phthalates, for example, are not clear, Toys R Us said that by year-end it would not sell baby products that contain the compounds. Wal-Mart Stores handed down a similar edict to its suppliers, who must begin complying on August 1. Whole Foods plans to start selling its own brand of baby bottles in June, joining a slew of boutique bottle makers, including one that markets an $18 shatter-proof glass bottle with nipples imported from France -- seven times pricier than the typical model.

The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in 2003 that phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive problems, are of concern and that more research on their health effects is needed. The group has no position on bisphenol A, known as BPA. The chemical and plastics industries have tried to allay consumer fears over BPA and phthalates, common ingredients in a host of plastic products. "Both BPA and phthalates have been thoroughly tested by regulatory agencies around the world, and the conclusions of those studies support continued safe use in the products they're in," said Sharon Kneiss, vice president of the products division at the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing the nation's largest chemical companies.

Parents such as Laurie Cunningham and her husband, Travis Bowen, choose to err on the side of caution, even if it means paying more.

Last summer, the Centreville couple started looking for an organic crib mattress because they wanted to avoid exposing their daughter, Samantha, now 8 months old, to potentially harmful flame-retardant chemicals used in mattress filling. Then "it all sort of snowballed," Cunningham said.

She and her husband now use cloth diapers because they are concerned about chemicals that help make disposable diapers absorbent and about the impact of diapers on landfills. They painted the nursery with a special kind of paint that is formulated so it doesn't release harmful gases.

The couple would have kept going until every item in the nursery met their standards, but given that the prices for organic furnishings can be 15 to 20 percent higher than conventional ones and 50 to 100 percent higher for clothing, the couple decided to spend the bulk of their budget on the things the baby would be in contact with for the most hours each day. They bought a $500 handmade crib from Oregon coated in a non-toxic wax finish and a $230 crib mattress made of organic cotton and wool.

"We prioritized because everything is expensive," said Cunningham, who now acquires second-hand toys and clothes to save money. She and a neighbor, Alexa Hutchins, are starting a local chapter of Holistic Moms Network, a national group for parents interested in green alternatives. Hutchins also sprang for an organic crib mattress for her 6-month old son Max that was handmade by the Amish in Ohio.

So far, parents like Hutchins and Cunningham have helped drive up sales of organic baby-care products to $15 million in 2006 from $12 million the previous year, and organic baby food to $235 million in 2006 from $206 million in 2005, according to the Organic Trade Association.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company