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Sarah Janssen’s Blog

New study finds flame retardant chemicals are in most baby products.

Sarah Janssen

Posted May 17, 2011 in Health and the Environment

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Today a new study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Environmental Science & Technology, found that out of 101 baby products tested, 80 contained flame retardant chemicals. The products tested included nursing pillows, car seats, changing table pads, sleep positioners, infant carriers and strollers. In all, 8 different types of flame retardant mixtures were identified and some products contained more than one class of flame retardant chemical.

The majority of baby products tested in this study contain flame retardant chemicals with names that resemble alphabet soup – TCEP, TDCPP, PBDEs, TCPP, TBPH, and TPP. But unlike soup, they aren’t good for you - some of these chemicals have been linked to a lowered IQ, reproductive problems including an increased time to pregnancy and poor sperm quality, hormone disruption, and cancer. If this wasn’t concerning enough, only a small number of flame retardants have undergone adequate testing and the toxicity of some of the flame retardants identified is unknown.

This study is significant for several reasons:

  1. It the first study which has attempted to identify what types of flame retardant chemicals are present in a wide range of baby products. A previous smaller study by the same authors, found some of the same chemicals in 2 nursery items. Today's study looked at a much wider range of products that were collected from homes across the U.S.
  2. Though today's study did not look at exposures in the children while using the tested products, based on previous studies it is quite probable that kids are being exposed to these chemicals. Flame retardant chemicals do not stay bound to polyurethane foam and are released with use. They can be absorbed across the skin and they can attach to dust particles which can be inhaled or ingested from a sticky toddler’s hands. Other studies have found that the levels of flame retardants in house dust are closely linked to the amounts measured in people.
  3. Children carry disproportionately higher levels of flame retardants in their bodies when compared to adults. I recently blogged on a California study which found that children carried on average 7 times higher levels of the flame retardants, PBDEs, when compared to their Mexican counterparts. This difference in exposure is likely explained by the outdated California flammability standard, TB 117, which I will explain more about later.
  4. Finally, this study is a good example of how pervasive these chemicals have become in our everyday life and how broken the federal law is which should prevent this from happening. When one chemical is removed because of toxicity concerns, another replaces it which is later found to have its own toxicity, to be replaced by yet another, which has not yet been tested. This is a loud call for reform of TSCA, the federal law which has failed to protect us from unsafe chemicals in consumer products.

Part of the reason that so many polyurethane foam based products, like the baby products in this study, contain flame retardant chemicals is because of an outdated flammability standard in California called TB 117. Because manufacturers don’t make products specifically for California, many foam-based products across the country are made to comply with this standard. Though the standard does not require the use of chemicals, it has been the cheapest and most frequently used way to meet it.

However, you might ask yourself, do baby products really pose a fire threat?

Is my nursing pillow in danger of catching on fire?       

Probably not.

The State of California has recognized that some infant products are not fire hazards and has exempted strollers, nursing pillows and infant carriers from having to comply with their flammability standard, TB 117.  The exemption went into effect after the products in this study were purchased. Manufacturers should have taken note of this and hopefully are no longer dousing their products unnecessarily with chemicals.

What should you do if you have an infant and a home filled with baby gear?

My colleagues at the Green Science Policy Institute have put together a list of recommendations with which I whole heartedly agree: 

1) Purchase safe baby products and furniture

Consider buying baby products and furniture that contain polyester, down, wool or cotton (not polyurethane foam) which are less likely to contain harmful flame retardant chemicals.

If you aren't sure, write or call manufacturers to inquire whether flame retardants were added to the product and if they were, what kind.

 2) Avoid products with the TB 117 label, as it is an indicator the product likely contains flame retardant chemicals.  Next time you see a foam product, look for this label:

 

 117label.body.jpg

 

3) Reduce exposure to house dust.

Vacuum often (with an HEPA filter) and wet-mop to reduce build-up of dust in your home.

Wash hands frequently, (with plain soap and water!) as hand-to-mouth contact with dust is a major pathway for exposure.

4) Finally, get involved! I invite you to join us in calling on Congress to reform the federal law, TSCA, so that chemicals are proven to be safe before they are introduced into consumer products. Find out more here: http://www.takeouttoxics.org/  and then take action!

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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