You’ve probably already seen the headlines.  “Hazardous Flame Retardants and Chemical Additives Found in Over Half of 2011 Child Car Seats…”

I almost hesitate to link to the article or mention the organization that did the tests, because the study seems very incomplete.  It provides little information on their methods, it doesn’t mention if they have correlated these findings to actual exposure/poisoning risk, and it also doesn’t even mention how they propose these chemicals are being introduced to children.  The same was true the last time they did such testing and the new results appear to have the same flaws.

After all, your child doesn’t drink or eat using a carseat, the two most likely methods for exposure.  The skin of the arms and legs often contact the fabric cover and the child could possibly chew on a harness system component, but other than that, there simply isn’t much direct contact to the shell plastics, metals and other components.  A more likely method is that some of these chemicals could be released into the air and inhaled, but the press release doesn’t discuss this in any way.  Plus, similar chemicals are likely to be in vehicle upholstery and interior components anyway.

The reality is that all of these chemicals are present in many household items that your child can contact.  Silverware, appliances, many pajamas, furniture upholstery, carpeting (and other flame retardant fabrics) and lots of other common products.  The question is this: can the chemical be leeched from the product at all and if so, is it likely for it to be ingested or absorbed in a quantity large enough to cause an exposure issue?  The answer for many items is simply “No”. 

Of course, I don’t have the answer in regard to carseats, but it doesn’t appear the study provides any useful information on this, either.  That is because the study only seems to discuss the mere presence of chemicals based on their testing.  The presence of a toxic chemical is only one requirement for exposure.  The study doesn’t discuss at all if these chemicals can migrate out of the materials in question or if there is a possible method in which enough exposure would result in any real risk to a child.  Without this information, the results seem nearly useless to me.

Plus, the study even admits that it, “…did not test for all hazardous flame retardants, particularly chlorinated flame retardants (CFRs), and seats may contain other chemical hazards.”   So, they blatantly ignored non-Bromine based flame retardants based on Chlorine that can also be toxic, even though they list Chlorine as a hazard elsewhere in the study.  That seems quite incomplete and potentially very biased, because nearly all carseat cover fabrics are treated to meet the required federal flame retardant standard.  (A few, like Orbit Baby in their G2 products, use Oeko-Tex certified fabrics that apparently do not use chlorinated or brominated flame retardant treatments).

Given that this study on carseats does not appear to have been published and peer-reviewed in a respected scientific or medical journal, I would be very hesitant to use it as a basis for a purchase of a child safety seat.   Sadly, some of the headlines today do misleadingly mention a peer-reviewed study.  That study is related to flame retardants in general, and again, it only addresses their existence in products like foam, not the actual exposure or risk.  Interestingly, that peer-reviewed study discusses the toxic risk of chlorinated flame retardants in detail, even though this carseat study claims that it did not measure for them at all!  Also, there is no independent verification of results.  Many carseats and covers, especially infant seats, are produced in the same few factories in China and the Far East.  If I was concerned about chemicals, I would also be wondering why some models from the same manufacturer tested one way, while nearly identical models made in the same facility had different results.

What we do know for certain is that motor vehicle crashes remain a top killer of children 1-14 years old.   Parents should still purchase a carseat based on how well it fits their child, fits their vehicle and how easy it is to use correctly on each trip.  I don’t want to diminish the risk of toxic chemicals to children.  I am concerned about them, too.  There may indeed be a risk to children from chemicals in car seats (and many children’s products), but this study seems completely inadequate to specify those risks.  Personally, for me to make a choice based on the presence of such chemicals, this study would have to go a lot farther and not have the flaws I described.

If you are concerned about the flame retardant chemicals present in nearly all carseat covers, there are a couple simple alternatives.  When you buy a carseat, let it sit outside in the sun for a few days.  That will allow for the most volatile chemicals to outgas before being enclosed in the car.  Next, washing/scrubbing with certain cleaners can help reduce or remove the flame retardant present in the fabric cover.  Of course, this may be contrary to some manufacturer’s washing instructions and, if so, could possibly ruin your cover.  It will certainly diminish the ability of the fabric to resist burning, causing a real risk to a child in a serious crash if fire is present.  Ultimately, like everything, it’s a tradeoff.  The very small, but very real risk of serious burns vs. an unspecified risk due to a possible chemical exposure indicated by an incomplete and questionable study.  It’s another tough choice for a parent, but I do not believe it is any cause for the panic many media outlets are creating.  Please leave us a comment and let us know which you would choose!

For those still interested to see the press release, you may find it here.