After I wrote the post “Car Seats and Flame Retardants,” I realized I hadn’t talked about which flame retardants are in car seats and why these are harmful. The buzz about flame retardants isn’t that they are there (they could be life-saving, after all), it’s about which ones are currently used. I’m not a scientist, so much of what I know about this comes from Healthystuff.org, the EPA, and googling to learn about the studies that have been done.
Some of the flame retardants used in car seats today are bromine-, chlorine-, or organo-phosphate-based flame retardants. These flame retardants aren’t just found in car seats; they are in many products in our homes, notably, polyurethane foam found in our couches, nursing pillows, strollers, cars, baby changing pads, crib mattresses… the list is long. And it seems like every time one of these flame retardants is found to be toooo dangerous, another one (just as dangerous, if not more so) takes its place. Hence the Wack-A-Mole problem.
One way to reduce our exposure to these chemicals is to buy a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which is a special filter that removes and traps a large amount of small particles that other filters can’t. Another way is to dust often. The chemical particles accumulate in dust, and as we know, the dust settles on our floors, children’s toys, and food. Because babies and children crawl on our floors and then put their fingers in their mouths, not to mention chew on their toys, they are especially at risk for ingesting these particles.
Okay, on to the depressing stuff…
Brominated Flame Retardants
There are a few different kinds of flame retardants made of bromine. The most common brominated flame retardants are polybrominated biphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. PBDEs are commonly used in our household furniture: couches, plastics, upholstery, strollers, mattresses, pillows, electronics (so try not to let your baby suck on your cell phone). Studies have also found PBDEs in fish, meat, fruits, veggies, even infant formula.
PBDEs are toxic chemicals that build up in our bodies (our tissues, fat, and blood) and in the bodies of many animals we eat. They can contaminate breastmilk and umbilical cord blood. (In 2008, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) did a study and found “high levels” of PBDEs in 10 of 10 newborns.) PBDEs can cause reproductive problems, birth defects, and disrupt the thyroid hormone, which is essential for brain development in fetuses. Studies have also found that PBDEs are endocrine disruptors. (The endocrine system regulates our hormones – estrogen, testosterone, etc.) Two major concerns with PBDEs are (1) they can degrade into more toxic chemicals, contaminating our environment and wildlife and (2) they are additive flame retardants, meaning they are not bound to the plastics, foams, fabrics, etc. that they’re in, so they leach out – onto our skin, into the air, and settle in our dust.
Two PBDEs that have been phased out due to their toxicity are Penta and Octa. (Long names: pentabromodiphenyl ether and octabromodiphenyl ether). Phased out, but a study in 2011 still found PentaDBE in baby products. Both of these had been so extensively used in products that millions of pounds still remain in our homes, offices, and the environment. Another PBDE, known as Deca, is currently used in our furniture and mattresses, among other items. The EPA has stated Deca potentially causes cancer and may impact brain function.
Chlorinated Tris (Tris, TDCPP, or TDCP) and TCEP
There are so many horrible things to say about these chemicals I don’t know where to start. Tris and TCEP are chlorine and phosphorous based flame retardants. A 2011 study found Tris was the most common flame retardant found in baby products with foam (again: car seats, baby changing pads, baby carriers, nursing pillows, and rocking chairs, to name just a few). Tris’ popularity rose once PentaBDE was phased out. It really is Flame Retardant Wack-A-Mole. You should click on that link. It’s a great article. 🙂
Prior to 1977, children’s pajamas were treated with Tris, but in 1977, it was banned. Why? you ask. Because it was found to have “mutagenic properties,” or as California’s EPA has stated, it is “genotoxic.” (2011 Study by the Reproductive and Cancer Hazard Branch of the CA EPA) Yes, that’s right. It induced “chromosomal aberrations” of cells in mice and hamsters and induced “malignant cell transformation” of certain embryo hamster cells. Basically, exposure to Tris caused DNA mutations and benign and malignant tumors in rats.
TCEP, which is structurally similar to Tris, is also categorized by the state of California as a known carcinogen and has been linked to reproductive effects and neurotoxicity. Animal studies have found that exposure to TCEP causes tumors and damage to the learning center of the brain. (See the Public Health Statement by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.)
Very often polyurethane foam has been treated with Tris and/or TCEP. Polyurethane foam is everywhere. Every time I bought a baby product, and I felt it and thought “oh, so cushiony” (like my Dutalier glider), I looked under the fabric and saw a tag that told me the foam was polyurethane foam and that it complied with CA Technical Bulletin 117. That is a huge indicator that the foam has been treated with one or many of the flame retardants discussed in this post.
Oh, yet another flame retardant used in polyurethane foam and TONS of children’s products and found all over our homes in… you guessed it, dust.
Firemaster 550 was developed to replace other flame retardants that we had learned were toxic. (Whoever coined that Wack-A-Mole thing was brilliant.) A 2012 study of rats, including pregnant rats, found Firemaster 550 to affect neurodevelopment, the endocrine system, the thyroid hormone (which, as noted, is really important for brain development and metabolism in fetuses), weight of the offspring rats (rats ingesting more Firemaster 550 were heavier than those that had ingested lower levels), and their cardiovascular systems.
So, that’s my summary on some of the most common flame retardants – yes, used in car seats, but found in so many other household products/furniture pieces as well. If you’re up for cutting a small piece of the foam out of your couch, baby mattress, changing pad, you can send it to Duke University for testing: http://foam.pratt.duke.edu. I’ve done this with two products so far and will post when I get the results.