Products designed for newborns, babies and toddlers -- including car seats, breastfeeding pillows, changing pads, crib wedges, bassinet mattresses and other items made with polyurethane foam -- contain multiple toxic chemical flame retardants, according to a first-of-its-kind peer-reviewed study published today in the Environmental Science & Technology journal.
Halogenated flame retardants -- considered some of the most dangerous chemicals on the market -- are persistent in the environment and bio-accumulate in people and wildlife. Adverse impacts of these chemicals can include mutagenic damage to DNA, cancer, neurological toxicity, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity and immune system damage, among others, according to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. "These are the worst kind of chemicals, and they are a potent symbol of the complete breakdown in chemical management in this country," says Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families director Andy Igrejas. "You bring them into your home hidden in consumer products that seem benign. But they get out of products and into your bloodstream, where they begin to damage your health."
Throughout 2010 and 2011, volunteers from 13 states submitted cubic-inch pieces of polyurethane foam cut from 101 baby products to a Duke University research laboratory. More than 80 percent of the samples contained hazardous or untested chemical flame retardants. Four products contained penta-BDE, a substance so toxic it is banned in 172 countries and 12 U.S. states. Twenty-nine products contained TDCPP or chlorinated Tris, a possible human carcinogen that was removed from children's pajamas over health concerns in the late 1970s. Fourteen products contained TCEP, a carcinogenic flame retardant on California's Proposition 65 list of cancer-causing chemicals that has been shown to reduce fertility and cause hyperactivity. TCEP is no longer produced in Europe, and Canada recognizes it as a risk to human health.
Manufacturers have agreed to end production of three of the most pervasively used flame retardants -- penta and octa-BDE in 2004 and deca-BDE by 2013 -- but equally hazardous flame retardants have taken their place, according to the Baby Product Study of 2011. TDCPP or chlorinated Tris, for example, has resurfaced in child care products and replaced penta-BDE in furniture. Any product that contains polyurethane foam is likely to contain halogenated flame retardants, which escape as dust and are absorbed through human breath and indigestion. Regular damp mopping can help reduce your family's exposure, but vigilance is key.
Because the United States does not require that chemical ingredients be listed on product labels, the only way to find out what's in the car seat you're considering is to contact product makers or visit websites devoted to chemical testing. Even products claiming to be PBDE-free may contain other equally hazardous chemicals, according to the Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety, because most manufacturers make all their products to meet stringent flammability requirements in the State of California's Technical Bulletin 117, or TB117. If a product carries a label that says it meets California's flammability standards, it likely contains potentially-toxic flame retardants, the Alliance warns. Before you buy baby products, ask about flammability standards and the health and safety criteria for the chemicals they use.
The pending "Safe Chemicals Act of 2011," introduced in Congress last month, would phase out toxic flame retardants and other chemicals that persist in the environment and build up in people's blood and tissue. "Under current law, EPA is powerless to act against even the most notorious chemicals," Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Sustainable Business. "The Safe Chemicals Act would provide EPA with the authority it needs to protect public health; the marketplace with the information companies need to innovate safe products; and consumers with the comfort in knowing that their families are being protected."