By Sonya Lunder, EWG Senior Scientist Last year I cut small squares of foam from my sons' car seats, our glider rocker and my breastfeeding pillow, wrapped them in foil to prevent contamination and mailed them off to Duke University for chemical analysis. What the researchers there turned up is now part of a just-released study that found a startling number of toxic fire retardant chemicals in common baby products.
This isn't the first time I've studied fire retardants and children. A few years ago I documented the presence of these persistent and toxic chemicals in people. Used to slow the ignition of polyurethane foam (which is pretty flammable), these substances (known as polybrominated diethyl ethers or PBDEs) were taken off the U.S. market in 2006 because they were shown to be toxic to lab animals and, ultimately, to people. Studies by EWG and others confirmed that they were in the bodies of every American. We even found them in umbilical cord blood, which supplies nutrients - and in this case toxic fire retardants - to the developing fetus.
Identifying replacement chemicals - and their safety
Until this week, though, we didn't know exactly what chemicals had replaced PBDEs in foam products. Without a stronger federal chemicals regulatory process, new chemicals aren't sufficiently tested before use, so there's no way to know for sure if they're safe., Thanks to Heather Stapleton and her team of chemical detectives at Duke, however, we now know that we've got another toxic problem on our hands - and in our baby products!
For the new study, a group of organizations, including EWG, collected 101 foam samples from baby products in the homes of our friends and supporters, including changing table pads, nursing pillows, car seats and portable crib mattresses. The analysis found that 80 percent of the samples contained chemical fire retardants and more than a third contained a chemical called Tris, which was taken out of polyester pajamas in the 1970s because of indications that it caused cancer. In total, the products tested contained eight different fire retardants, including PBDEs in a handful of older items. Kids are unique and have higher exposures
Three years ago EWG found that 1-to-4-year-old kids had higher concentrations of fire retardants in their blood than their mothers did, probably because kids spend more time on the floor and are always putting their hands and other objects in their mouths - and ingesting microscopic particles of foam and fire retardants that lie around the house in dust.
My sons are probably more exposed to toxic fire retardants than I am - particularly my 1-year-old, who is teething right now, with both hands always in his mouth! Come to think of it, given the wide array of foam children's products that are required to be fire retardant, they probably have a lot more exposure to Tris than I did when I wore fire retardant PJs back in the 70s.
California requires foam in children's products to be fire safe (per its Technical Bulletin 117), and, as a result, most American kids' products contain Tris and other fire retardants. As a matter of fact, this new study found chemicals in every single car seat, rocking chair and nursing pillow tested. As of January 2011, California exempts strollers, infant carriers and nursing pillows from that requirement, but we at EWG urge them to exclude car seats and all other foam baby products that pose a very low fire risk and to find safer ways to protect other foam items from fire. Unfortunately, this spring the state failed to pass just this sort of a bill. How to reduce your family's exposure
To limit your exposure to these chemicals, you should carefully consider the foam products in your household - and any new ones you might bring in:
- Try to buy baby items that don't contain foam, such as nursing pillows that are filled with polyester instead.
- Contact companies to ask how they meet the fire safety requirements. In many cases, it can be done without chemical fire retardants.
- Throw away old items if the foam is exposed or starting to break down. (You can tell this is happening if it's sagging in places or otherwise changing its shape.) Some companies sell replacement pads for old glider rockers.
- Repair foam items with ripped covers.
- Take extra precautions with anything made before 2006 - it might contain PBDEs, the most toxic fire retardant chemical. In addition to kids' products, this applies to those hard-to-replace items such as couches, easy chairs, carpet padding and automobile seats.
- Dust! That's right, these chemicals accumulate in household dust, so dust often. And use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter. These vacuums are more efficient at trapping small particles and will likely remove more contaminants and other allergens from your home. Read more about dust and fire retardants in our report.