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.
Thank you SOOO much! After reading the initial study, I took out my Britax Marathon 70 seat and installed the Graco MyRide that I use in my moms car. I HATE the MyRide. I don’t know what everyone is going on about when they say it’s so great. I can only imagine they are people who have never had a Britax! I really did wonder why there was such variation in the same seats and had a few other questions about the methodology, but like the person above, I was feeling that I should be safe, rather than sorry. THANK YOU so much for evaluating the methods they use. It is amazing how many studies don’t use the scientific method even though it’s the 1st lesson in most science classes! I suppose I could write a paper on why the Graco isn’t a safe seat because I had such trouble with the install and getting the straps tight enough. Would it be correct? Nope, it would just be one persons opinion, but if I wrote it up well enough and made it sound scientific, I could have people throwing away their seats like crazy! I’m just thankful to be re-installing my Britax seat, which will take me around 2 seconds, because it is such a quick, easy, solid install! Thanks again! My husband wanted to say that he agrees and thanks you too!
Thanks for your common senses approach to this article. I was wary when I originally read this of the methodology and it struck me as strange that you could have such radically different results for car seats that are basically manufactured in the same plants. Unfortunately the article appears to be gaining traction so I am thankful for your balanced (and knowledgeable) viewpoint.
The Methodology is addressed here: http://www.healthystuff.org/departments/childrens-products/about.methodology.php. As a parent, I like to work with whatever “good faith” and reliable information I can find, which is why I was happy to find such useful recommendations on the car-seat.org website. I basically combined the recommendations I saw there with the information I found on HealthyStuff.org to select a seat. There is a health side as well as an environmental side to the rankings presumably (given the link to the Ecology Center), and I for one am concerned about both.
I find your analysis interesting but troubling, because you seem to be throwing out the results completely. Until better information is available (and I don’t think the manufacturers are going to address this unless there is pressure on them to do so), I am happy that someone is doing some kind of analysis on the chemicals present in car seats, even if the analyses are imperfect. Peer-reviewed studies are no guarantee of perfection either. I want to know more, not less, and this study is a start.
As for your comment that many of household items contain these chemicals, I don’t understand how that makes it acceptable.
I invite you to look closely at their “methodology” of how they measure the presence of base atoms in materials (not compounds or molecules). That major limitation means they only infer that such toxic compounds are present in dangerous forms, much as Chlorine can be present in a completely safe molecule like table salt that I mentioned previously. The XRF is very limited in this regard. A sound testing program would include multiple types of instruments for this reason. Also, some important toxic chemicals cannot be detected at all with their device, as they very clearly admit. Not considering Chlorinated flame retardants is a major bias! You could be buying a seat with a top rating that actually contains an equally hazardous and common Chlorinated flame retardant substance as the one they did try to test. I would not feel safe with their results just knowing this alone!
Simply stating what instrument you used and how you used it is not a methodology. In fact, they even state in your link that they followed procedures contrary to the industry standard of using the instrument, such as in how long they subjected a sample to measurement! At minimum, a respectable study could have had another laboratory verify their results independently! A complete methodolgy would include important statistical information and a full disclosure of potential flaws and biases, which they do not discuss. For example, they simply do not address things required in a peer reviewed scientific paper, such as margins of error or statistical significance. That means they don’t report at all on the variability of their results. Why?
Most likely because they readily admit that in most tests, they did not even bother to take multiple or repeat samples. That in turn means those results have no statistical signifcance at all! None! When they did take repeat samples in an area, they did not publish the results! That is most likely why some nearly identical products have so much variability. If you have looked at the individual results, I don’t think you would trust that top rated products with “zero” levels would have the same top result if they purchased multiple quantities of the same items from different batches and re-tested them in a manner consistent with the industry standard for using an XRF scope that is properly calibrated with another scope for verification. Heck, the products they did test that are essentially idendical varied considerably, so much so that their results seem meaningless. From their results, how do you know the factory in China didn’t vary their composition from one month to the next or if the supplier of the chest clip changed over time or one of many normal variations in manufacturing? Yes, it is very expensive to do such comprehensive sampling, but that is how quality studies are done.
The problem with bad science is exactly what you describe. It is likely to taint the reader if it is the only data available, even if it is completely useless for the intended purpose. No, I am not saying that it is acceptable for household items to contain hazardous materials. I am saying that the risk is minimized if the materials have no way to be absorbed by the body. Do you have fine crystal in your house? It likely has a signifcant amount of lead in it, but if your child doesn’t drink something stored in the crystal container for a long period (like alcohol stored continually in a decanter) that can leach out the lead over time from the crystal, then it really is not a hazard to them! (The amount of lead leeched out over a couple hours in a glass is typically much less than what you get in a normal diet).
So, yes, I am throwing out their results, because they didn’t bother to follow the recommended procedures and didn’t include sufficient statistical information that would be acceptable to any respectable, peer-reviewed journal where quality studies are published. It’s not unlike the “data” you find in an infomercial or a “white paper” or other compelling advertisement. It might be correct. It probably isn’t. There is just no way to know.
Yes, these are things that aren’t necessarily obvious to a casual reader. I admit that as a test engineer, I like to look a little farther into reports like this, especially when they have not appeared in a respected medical or scientific journal that has a reputation at stake. We at CarseatBlog are very concerned about toxic hazards to children, but we simply can’t suggest that this study is an acceptable way to determine if one carseat is less toxic than another. The study is certainly a wake up call, because it does seem to indicate that potential hazards may exist in carseats. It does not, however, give any information that is useful to compare one carseat to another.
Apologies for the long-winded response, but I feel your comments deserved a good explanation of our stance on this topic.
Thank you, PJC, for your comments. There is a more likely reason that many studies and “white papers” relating to health are not published and peer-reviewed in a respectable scientific or medical journal. The reason is that they do not use scientific method, do not have statistically significant results or would otherwise not hold up to the scrutiny of other researchers in the field. For example, let’s simply take this study for what it is. Do you know? It’s a single measurement per item of base atoms (not molecules or compounds) in the surface of a solid material. Read the little information they do provide about their methods. You should find some additional answers. How many samples of each item did they measure? How many samples of the same item did they measure? Can the results be verified independently? What is the margin of error for each measurement? What are the rates of false positives? False negatives? Did they use procedures to minimize sample contamination? Does the equipment discern toxic molecules containing a particular atom vs. non-toxic ones? No one is scoffing at the presence of toxic chemicals that can affect the health of children. The problem is that this study doesn’t seem to really tell us anything, given all the flaws and omitted information. Yes, it shouldn’t be on the shoulders of a non-profit organization to do this. But just because this is the only data available doesn’t necessarily make it good data. One last note about lead. It is toxic, as you say. It is also very important to know the route it takes into the body and in what material it is contained. In some materials, it simply won’t migrate out in any significant quantity to have an adverse affect before the body removes it. In others, it will be readily absobed. This study does little to tell us any of this critical information. As a concerned parent, which I am, I would definitely want to know far more than this study offers if I am trying to find a way to protect my child from chemical hazards while still keeping them safe from the #1 killer of children (motor vehicle crashes). Certainly, it is still better to have zero lead in an item that can be contacted by a child. The problem is, I’m not convinced that these results are conclusive enough to tell us even that, given the wide discrepancies in the results for essentially identical products. If you do select a product that had a “zero” result, regardless of how well it might fit your child or vehicle, do you really trust this study enough to think that another sample will also have “zero”? Look at all the details for each model and similar models made at the same location and then decide if you trust their methods and statistical information (which are not readily published like they would be in a peer-reviewed paper). Aside from the “Clip” measurement, we really don’t have any information on where a toxic atom was found. Some parts of a shell or base are not likely to be contacted at all and unlikely to outgas volatile molecules (something this study doesn’t identify). This study has incomplete information that is cause for a lot of panic, with little actual information for a parent to know what to do to minimize any actual risk. That is the worst kind of study.
I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we do not use car seats for our children. The point is that these chemicals, some like the brominated/chlorinated flame retardants that are deliberately added for a specific purpose, or others like phthalates (plasticizers) and lead (which are component ingredients) have serious health risks attached to them and really they should not be used in products aimed at young children, who are going through very specific developmental stages.
So I think we should be grateful for this information and use it to develop car seats and other products which do not include harmful chemicals. The study is not peer reviewed or published because its aim is to detect the presence of certain compounds not establish a scientific outcome (which would be the only reason why someone would publish a study.) It is unethical to deliberately perform tests on children, but there is huge body of data for animal and epidemiological studies showing significant effects.
Routes for exposure include inhalation and skin absorption, so sitting in a seat, especially for long periods of time, could result in higher levels of these chemicals in the body and that is horrendous. The fact that there are other chemicals present in a car still doesn’t not make it right to have these chemicals present in car seats. Also it shouldn’t be the role of a non-profit organization to test levels and how much is being absorbed – surely that is something manufacturers should be across. Studies like these are hugely expensive and it is their product.
One quick note about lead. It is extraordinarily toxic to the brain, especially for fetuses and very young children. Lead can be absorbed by the skin where it will go directly to the blood stream, which will travel to the brain. There is no difference in routes into the body – inhalation is as bad as eating substances with lead present. Lead is also stored in our bones, so at times like pregnancy where there is a great demand for calcium, lead can be leached back into circulation. The CDC has confirmed that there are NO SAFE LIMITS for lead exposure.
Here’s a good resource for general FAQs on lead
5 years ago people would have scoffed at the issue of chemicals and how they affect the health and development of children, but the weight of scientific evidence has swung opinion. In the past 6 months, the American Academy of Pediatricians has joined the American Medical Association in calling for stricter regulation and greater awareness of chemicals of concern.
Thank you for mentioning the use of Oeko-Tex certified fabrics- That’s great to know and I haven’t heard that info anywhere. You guys sure know your car seats 🙂
As far as I know, among other things, lead is used as a stabilizer in plastics and ‘doesn’t play nicely with other chemicals.’ It likes to migrate up and out over time. So the plastic clip you’re touching, may well contain lead that’s slowly detaching itself from the other components in the plastic.
Lead doesn’t have to be ingested to be a concern. Its easily absorbed through the skin, can get passed from your/your kid’s hands to a baby sibling by touch and accumulates in the air and dust. It may seem trivial given that its from a small clip, but couple that with the vinyl dashboard (vinyl uses lead too) slowly offgassing in the scorching rays on a hot day..the lead dust buildup isn’t merely a figment of our imagination (and there’s the issue of phthalates too..you know that nice, new car smell? Those are chemicals going about their day offgassing..).
Hi Mavmakmar! That is a great question. This study does not address it at all, unfortunately. I certainly do not have the answer, either. The concern is if lead can migrate out of the plastic chest clip in any quantity. I’m guessing it is extremely unlikely that touch would be an issue, but again, that’s just a guess. There could be an issue if bits of the chest clip were chewed and swallowed, of course, but again, that assumes enough lead leeches out in the digestive system to be a risk in the first place. Lead exists in many things. So does Chlorine, table salt is a good example. What we need to know is if these chemicals exist in dangerous forms and quantities that are likely to be absorbed by the body in some manner. This study doesn’t tell us that information at all.
What about the lead in the clips? Something both parent & child touch everday, Should we be concerned?