Material alert: Toxic flame retardants in baby products

Survey from University of California at Berkeley of common baby products finds 80 percent contain toxic or untested flame retardants and 36 percent contain one banned in the 1970s.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

About 80 percent of commonly used baby products recently surveyed by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, contain toxic or untested halogenated flame retardants, and 36 percent contain chlorinated Tris--a toxin that, along with the related brominated Tris, was banned for several years in the 1970s.

Arlene Blum holds nursing pillows found to contain chlorinated Tris. UC Berkeley

What's more, the flame retardants--there to meet California standard TB117 that consumer items withstand a small open flame--are easily rendered ineffective when put in, for instance, baby furniture with fabric covers that are not required to be resistant, says chemist and visiting scholar Arlene Blum, who helped organize the study just reported in in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

"The California furniture flammability standard called TB117 does not provide proven protection from fire," she says. "If we can change that requirement, we can have a positive effect worldwide, because these flame retardants are not just a California or U.S. problem--they've become global pollutants."

The semi-volatile chemicals get into the air and then into dust, where researchers say they can be ingested or form films on walls and windows. (An April 2011 UC Berkeley study found that Latino children in the U.S. have seven times the level of flame retardants in their blood than those living in Mexico.)

Various studies on both animals and humans have found that flame retardants containing bromine or chlorine can cause a range of health issues, including endocrine disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child neurological function.

For this study, Blum collected 101 used and new baby products (most purchased within the past five years) containing polyurethane foam, including changing table pads, nursing pillows, car seats, baby carriers, rocking chairs, high chairs, strollers, and portable crib mattresses.

Heather Stapleton, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University, tested the items and found chlorinated Tris to be the most common flame retardant, appearing in 36 percent of the foam samples. She also discovered two chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants not previously documented in the environment.

In their report, the authors argue for more studies of infants to determine whether "intimate contact" with flame retardants is linked to health problems.

In response, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association has issued a statement that "all nursery products sold in the United States must conform to tough federal safety standards such as the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act," and that "the use of substances that are harmful or toxic and to which children might be exposed" is restricted.