FLAME RETARDANTS: Eight different flame-retarding chemicals, including one removed from baby pajamas in the 1970s, can still be found in an array of baby products, a new study finds. Image: Interiot/Wikimedia Commons
Eighty percent of cushions used in car seats, portable cribs and other baby furnishings contain chemical flame retardants that can accumulate in babies’ bodies, according to a new study to be published Wednesday.
More than one-third of the tested products contained the same carcinogenic chemical that was removed from children’s pajamas in the late 1970s.
The study, conducted by research chemists from California and North Carolina, suggests that babies are being exposed to at least eight different flame-retarding chemicals in an array of products sold nationwide.
Manufacturers add brominated and chlorinated compounds to polyurethane foam cushions to slow the spread of flames in case they catch fire. The chemicals can leak from the cushions and then babies can inhale or ingest them, or absorb them through their skin.
The study’s lead author, Heather Stapleton, a Duke University assistant professor of environmental chemistry, said many of the compounds have been used in foam cushions only recently, replacing another chemical that was banned after 2004 because it was building up rapidly in human bodies.
“Most people are not aware of the exposure that is occurring,” Stapleton said, adding that the potential health effects of most of the chemicals are unknown.
Research on lab animals has shown some of the chemicals cause cancerous tumors and damage developing brain cells, and some can alter hormones essential to reproductive and neurological development. But for most of the compounds discovered in the baby products, even basic toxicity data is unknown, and the effects on human health remain unstudied.
Linda Birnbaum, director of the federal institute that funded part of the study, said in an interview Tuesday that she is concerned that babies are being exposed to chemicals without adequate information on their health risks.
“Are we moving from one compound for which there is a concern to a newer compound that may be just as bad or worse?" said Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “There are a few [of these compounds] that we certainly have concerns about. There are certainly issues about relatively high concentrations used in these products."
The research team sampled 101 pieces of polyurethane foam removed from cushions in car seats, changing table pads, sleep positioners, portable crib mattresses, nursing pillows, baby carriers, high chairs and a few other products.
Eighty of them contained at least one flame retardant.
“In general, the flame retardant chemicals detected were not associated with a particular type of product, manufacturer, or the year of purchase,” the researchers wrote in the peer-reviewed study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
The chemicals are added to furniture cushions to meet a California flammability standard adopted in 1975, which requires them to withstand a 12-second open flame. Although it is not a national standard, much of the nation’s furniture contains flame retardants to comply with it.
The chemicals were found to be so widespread in the products that it’s difficult for parents to avoid them. One item contained three different flame retardants, and some products had levels of the chemicals that made up as much as 12.5 percent of the foam’s weight, according to the study.
However, some manufacturers use a filling other than polyurethane foam, such as polyester, which can pass the flammability standard without the chemicals. Products that are advertised as free of flame retardants include BabyLuxe organic pads and mattresses, OrbitBaby strollers and car seats and Boppy nursing pillows. Those items were not tested for the study.