There's something about having a baby that makes many expectant moms want to redecorate, paint rooms, knock down walls, scrape old wallpaper, and refinish floors. Maybe it has something to do with the nesting instinct, or maybe it's the realization that after the baby arrives there will be no more time for this kind of activity. In any case, if you get the urge to start remodeling, think about the chemicals you'll be working with first, and use them safely.
Go ahead—paint the nursery any color you want, as long as you use a waterbased paint and keep the windows open. But stay away from oil- and lead-based paints, as well as paints manufactured before 1990. Until it was banned in 1990 by the Federal Drug Administration, mercury was often added to latex paints as a preservative. Some of these paints are still around, so it's best not to use old paints left in your parent's garage. Ask a knowledgeable salesperson if the paint you want to buy contains any mercury. The fetus is extremely sensitive to the fumes of mercury-laced paint. In extreme cases of mercury poisoning, effects on the newborn include mental retardation, tremors, seizures, and kidney and liver diseases.
Check the label on cans of spray paint. If you see "M-butyl ketone" or "MBK" don't use it. If inhaled, this chemical can cause neurological (having to do with the nerves) damage to your baby.
You should also avoid breathing in the fumes from polyurethane paints and coatings that give such a nice shine to woodwork and hardwood floors. Definitely don't apply these materials in spray form, and keep all windows open for at least 24 hours after the job is done. If you're putting a topcoat on moveable pieces, such as furniture, it's best to do the job outside in the open air.
When it's time to clean paintbrushes, stay away from turpentine and liquid paint removers. The fumes are strong and toxic. Because you're using only water-based paints while you're pregnant anyway, cleanup is easy with water. But if you need turpentine for a project, let a professional or your partner do the job.
Feel like getting really dirty and scraping off some old paint, taking down ugly wallpaper, or even tearing down walls? You'd better check for lead paint on those walls first. Almost all houses built before 1950 have lead paint on the walls. If you start stirring it up now, you might expose yourself—and your baby—to high levels of lead dust and risk lead poisoning. Although this exposure might give you absolutely no problem, it is very bad for your baby. High levels of lead exposure throughout pregnancy have led to infant death, premature birth, low birth weights, deformities, and lower intellect. Even low levels of lead exposure during pregnancy are associated with lower IQ scores, poor memory, and poor academic achievement in school. Find out how old the paint is before you scrape.