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Archive for Monday, March 3, 2008

Anxious parents going organic - at a cost

March 3, 2008

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Laurie Cunningham, left, and her 8-month-old daughter, Samantha Bowen, play with Alexa Hutchins and her son, Max. Hutchins and Cunningham are starting a chapter of Holistic Moms Network, a national group for parents who want to keep their children away from toxic chemicals.

Laurie Cunningham, left, and her 8-month-old daughter, Samantha Bowen, play with Alexa Hutchins and her son, Max. Hutchins and Cunningham are starting a chapter of Holistic Moms Network, a national group for parents who want to keep their children away from toxic chemicals.

How much?

Laurie Cunningham and Travis Bowen estimate they spent more than $1,500 on toxic-free products for their baby, Samantha. Here's where the money went:

¢ Crib: $500

¢ Crib mattress: $230

¢ Crib bedding: sheets ($13), bumper ($35), puddle pad ($69), blanket ($14)

¢ Baby carrier: $112

¢ Stainless steel sippy cup and three valves: $40

¢ All-in-one cloth diapers: $225 (15 at $15 each)

¢ Wash cloths: $50 (25 at $2 each)

¢ Co-sleeper mattress and sheets: $117

¢ Sleep sacks: $50 (2 at $25 each)

¢ Bibs: $40 (4 at $10 each)

¢ No-VOC paint for nursery: $38

— 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.

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, Va., 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 percent to 20 percent higher than conventional ones and 50 percent 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.

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