Children are exposed to brominated and organophosphate flame retardants from nap mats at child care centers, but switching to mats without the chemicals reduces kids’ exposures, according to a new study from scientists at Indiana University and Toxic-Free Future, a nonprofit organization based in Seattle.
Children can be exposed to chemical flame retardants through their skin when they lie on the foam mats during naptime, or when they inhale or ingest the chemicals that have migrated from the mats into air or dust.
The study tested nap mats at seven child care centers for flame retardant chemicals. Day cares were given flame retardant free mats to replace all mats with flame retardants. Scientists sampled dust and air in the day cares before and after the switch.
The results were encouraging: After the swap, the levels of four different flame retardants decreased by 40 to 90 percent, showing that simply switching nap mat foam could cut children’s exposures to harmful flame retardants. This is especially important, as the most abundant brominated flame retardant was measured at much higher levels in child care centers than the typical U.S. home.
“Developing interventions to reduce exposures to flame retardants and other environmental contaminants is very important in providing solutions for making the child care environment, where children spend eight to 10 hours every day, a healthier place,” said Dr. Amina Salamova, assistant research scientist at Indiana University and senior author of the study.
Chemical flame retardants have been added to furniture and other foam items, like the portable foam mats used at day cares for naptime, based on the idea they would improve fire safety. But California state regulators and independent researchers have concluded that the chemicals do very little, if anything, to protect us from fire risks. What’s worse, the chemicals themselves are toxic, with some linked to cancer, nervous system problems and other harms.
For decades, most nap mats sold in the U.S. contained chemical flame retardants to comply with a California fire safety law, TB-117. When the California law was updated in 2013, furniture and other foam-products that met fire safety standards without chemical flame retardants became widely available.
States and local governments are now acting to protect public health, especially that of children. While the updated California regulations allow furniture and foam products to meet fire safety standards without chemical flame retardants, the state did not ban the use of the chemicals. Recently, the City of San Francisco passed an ordinance unequivocally prohibiting chemical flame retardants in all new upholstered furniture and children’s products sold from retailers in the city and online. Starting in 2019, Maine will ban chemical flame retardants in furniture and Rhode Island will ban organohalogen flame retardants in bedding and furniture.
On the national level, the Consumer Product Safety Commission granted a groundbreaking 2017 petition to ban the entire class of organohalogen flame retardants from furniture, mattresses, electronic casings and children’s products. It also warned parents and caregivers to avoid purchasing items that contain these chemicals as it moves forward to implement the ban.
Research by Toxic-Free Future and other public health advocacy organizations points to the benefits of replacing furniture and foam products with flame retardant-free options. Public policy is also essential for removing flame retardants from products and making safer choices readily available.
“Child cares are places to learn, have fun and be safe. Our study shows that by removing toxic flame retardants from foam nap mats, we can provide kids with a healthier child care environment to learn and play in,” said Erika Schreder of Toxic-Free Future.
Fewer flame retardants in products – and the air and dust – means children will be less exposed to harmful chemicals. To reduce exposures to flame retardants, EWG recommends you:
- Always choose flame-retardant free furniture, bedding, mattresses and kids’ foam products. Check the labels.
- Encourage your day care to buy nap mats that don’t contain chemical flame retardants, or encourage it to use cots instead. If your children participate in gymnastics, ask the gym about the foam in their tumbling pits.
- At home, swap out foam from older furniture with cushions or other products made with flame retardant-free foam.
- Vacuum and dust your home frequently to remove dust that harbors flame retardants and other harmful chemicals.
- Wash your hands and your children’s hands frequently, especially before eating, to reduce ingestion of flame retardants and other chemicals.
More information on research from Toxic-Free Future can be found here.
Updated June 6, 2018