Guest post by Joni Clifford
Motherhood has continually inspired or propelled me to investigate and research topics that I never even thought of before I became a parent. The safety of my children seemed like it would be “easy” for me, something that my natural instincts and experience would guide me in and that my internal alarms would go off as soon as danger was near. I truly thought that I would instinctually know when something wasn’t safe or healthy for my child.
Most of the topics that I have researched have been food, toy or care related. Is the food I am feeding my child free of additives, healthy, nutritious and good for the Earth? Are the toys I am buying developmentally appropriate and physically safe? What daycare environment is best for our family? You know…..normal stuff.
But I have to say that I never thought, in a million years, that I would be researching whether hormones and antibiotics were in our milk or virus genes spliced into plant seeds of our food. An article recently published in USA Today added another incredible item to the list: flame retardants on my baby’s changing pad.
A study by researchers at Duke University, published on May 18th, found flame retardants in the foam of 80% (80 of 101 products) of the baby products tested. They tested car seats, changing table pads, infant sleep positioners, portable crib mattresses, and nursing pillows. A few additional samples were collected from high chairs, nursery rocking chairs/gliders, baby walkers, baby carriers, and miscellaneous bathroom items. The researchers did not reveal the brands used in the study.
Why are there flame retardants on baby products?
Several sources have indicated that most manufacturers use foam treated with flame retardants to comply with California’s Technical Bulletin 117. Although the standard does not actually require the use of flame-retardant chemicals, polyurethane foam manufacturers will use chemical retardants as an efficient means of meeting the safety standard, which requires the foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand a small open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. Since California is such a large portion of the consumer market and have the most stringent safety requirements, most manufacturers build their products to satisfy CA’s requirements and then sell them nationally.
What chemicals did they find?
The most common flame retardant found was tris(1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate (TDCPP). But the researchers also found tris(2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP) as an impurity and PBDE substances commonly associated with PentaBDE.
TDCPP is currently approved for use as a flame retardant in these types of products. Recent articles have confused TDCPP with a chemical that was banned in children’s clothes in the 1970′s (TRIS (2,3,-dibromopropyl) phosphate); however, it is not the same chemical. In 2006, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released a Risk Assessment of Flame Retardant Chemicals in Upholstered Furniture Foam, which included TDCPP. This CPSC report states that (emphasis added) “…upholstered furniture manufactured with TDCPP treated foam might present a hazard to consumers, based on both cancer and non-cancer end points”. And it is currently being evaluated by the state of California as a possible carcinogen.
TCEP, on the other hand, has already been labeled as a human carcinogen by the state of California. And PentaBDE was voluntarily phased out by manufacturers back in 2004 because nine states (including California) and the European Union (EU) passed laws to ban it.
According to Linda Birnbaum of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, of the retardants in the tested products, only pentaBDE is known to impact people.
I looked into the five products in which pentaBDE was detected, and all but one were purchased before 2004. The study notes indicated that a portable crib mattress was purchased in 2007 at a second hand store, so the year of manufacture was not able to be determined. Since the voluntary phase out started in 2004, and it was bought second-hand, there is no evidence provided that the crib mattress was manufactured after the phase out of the chemical.
What does all of this mean?
I have never seen flame retardant cautionary statements listed on the packaging of anything that I have bought for my children. What I have recently found out is that manufacturers are not required to label items that have been treated with flame retardants. Without the publication of this study, I would not have known that flame retardants were even used on these products. I now know to look for the TB 117 statement on the tag. I found this one my high chair:
However, this tag does not necessarily mean that the item has chemical flame retardants, since there are other ways to meet the flammability standards, but using them is one of the least expensive. So I assume that is the method that most manufacturers will use.
I have seen labels on pajamas that proclaim that they are flame resistant– giving me the impression that having flame retardants were a good thing. In fact, children’s pajamas are required to meet federal flammability standards and the American Academy of Pediatrics endorses the use of flame retardants on clothing to reduce the number of injuries and deaths from fires. They also instruct pediatricians to endorse legislation and regulations which promote that as well.
The American Chemistry Council tell us flame retardants “provide important fire safety benefits“, that they are “safe for use in consumer products”, and that the new study does not show harm to infants because it “does not address exposure or risk.”
So is it safe?
Based on a lot of the information I’ve read, the chemicals they found in the baby products are questionable at best. As stated, the study did not address exposure – like how much is absorbed through the skin, breathed in or consumed in dust via hand to mouth contact?
I feel that exposing my children to flame retardants (or any unnecessary chemical), even if it causes no harm, should be my choice as a parent and as a consumer. So while I will be looking to remove the products that contain them I will also be looking to support legislation or other campaigns which call for full disclosure of a product’s “ingredients” and contents. I’ve already replaced my changing table pads.
How can you reduce your family’s exposure to flame retardants?
- Consider buying products that are less likely to contain flame retardants – those that contain polyester, down, wool or cotton (not polyurethane foam). For children’s pajamas, get 100% cotton that are labeled “wear snug fitting”. They should be labeled as such.
- Use caution with products that contain the TB 117 label. Call the manufacturer to confirm they don’t use flame retardants.
- Reduce the dust in your home, where these harmful chemical collect: vacuum frequently using a vacuum with a HEPA filter and wet-mop.
- Wash hands often and especially before eating. For crawling babies, clean more frequently as their hands are in constant contact with dust and residue on the floor where the chemicals collect
- Replace upholstery with rips that exposes the inner foam.
- Advocate for safer products by supporting legislation to reform California’s TB 117 and the national Toxic Substances Control Act, and contact manufacturers to express your preference for flame retardant-free products. The Buyer’s Guide contains sample letters and contact information for voicing your concerns.
Products to buy:
According to the Buyer’s Guide referenced above, BabyLuxe Organic, Baby Bjorn, Orbit Baby and Boppy each have products which meet the TB 117 standards without chemical flame retardants.
For more information:
Identification of Flame Retardants in Polyurethane Foam Collected From Baby Products
California Technical Bulletin 117
National Toxicology Program 2011 Report on Carcinogens
American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on Accident Prevention
Green Science Policy Institute
Joni is a happy, working mother of 2 beautiful and energetic little boys, 3.5 and almost 1! She enjoys all things healthy, natural and good for the Earth (and a few things that are not). At work, she is a Senior Business Analyst for a software development company. Outside of work, she enjoys running (even 1/2 marathons!), tending her garden, and keeping up with the latest on purebebe.com.
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