The Controversy of Flame Retardant Chemicals in Child Car Seats
Every few years, HealthyStuff.org evaluates car seats based on the presence of flame retardants and certain heavy metals. They just came out with a new report, and you might be concerned about the findings. Let’s talk about what this all means.
First, let me say that I’m concerned about flame retardants, too. Some people brush it off as hippie-helicopter-parents-flipping-out-over-something-harmless. But some of the chemicals found in car seats have known detrimental effects, some have suspected detrimental effects, and at least one is slated to be phased out of use under the Stockholm Convention (a global treaty signed by over 150 countries who have vowed to reduce persistent organic pollutants).
I’ve written other posts about flame retardants for CarseatBlog, and I’m concerned about my own children’s exposure, so I’m not here to tell you the study doesn’t matter or should be ignored. But I’m not going to tell you to panic and throw away your seats, either.
This current study from HealthyStuff appears to be more thorough in some ways than past ones. This study looked for the presence of brominated, chlorinated, and phosphate-based flame retardants. They show which retardants were present in which seats, and they show the potential hazards of each of those compounds.
They do a much better job than in the past of explaining how these chemicals can enter a child’s body: through dermal (skin) contact, inhalation, or ingestion. The organization also provides a better explanation of their methodology and how they weighted the results to come up with their rankings.
Here are some things to keep in mind when looking at the rankings.
- All car seats legally sold in the U.S. must meet federal flammability standards. The flammability standard in FMVSS 213 is antiquated and controversial; most manufacturers meet the standard by adding chemical flame retardants. It’s difficult (although not impossible) to meet those standards without adding chemical flame retardants. However, manufacturers do have a choice as to which chemicals they use and how they use them.
- We don’t know the risks of all chemicals. We know that some are worse than others, but because fire retardants are largely unregulated, it often takes years before they’re fully tested and their impacts fully understood. A chemical that seems great now might turn out to be hazardous later. That means that we don’t necessarily know how “good” a seat with a “good” ranking really is. We also don’t know if a seat with a “bad” rating is really any worse. Especially because:
- There’s no way to know how “safe” or how “dangerous” a car seat is. Even the FAQs on HealthyStuff.org’s report states:
HealthyStuff.org ratings do not provide a measure of health risk or chemical exposure associated with any individual product, or any individual element or related chemical. HealthyStuff.org ratings provide only a relative measure of high, medium, and low levels of concern for several hazardous chemicals or chemical elements in an individual product in comparison to criteria established by our research team and informed by published research studies.
We don’t know how—or even if—these car seats’ chemicals are having an actual impact on kids.
- Not all seats were tested. HealthyStuff.org only tested 15 seats. There are a lot of seats that weren’t tested at all. Of the ones that were, we only have data for those particular samples. It’s possible that a company could switch vendors for certain components, meaning that foam that tested poorly (or well) might not even be used in other, seemingly identical seats manufactured at a different time. Basically: there’s just a lot we don’t know.
- Car seats save lives. It’s okay to be concerned about chemicals in your children’s car seats, but it doesn’t mean the car seat itself is a bad thing. Just the opposite: It’s absolutely necessary and crucial. The chemicals in flame retardants pose a potential risk. Car crashes are a known, real, happening-everyday risk, and are a leading cause of death in children. Properly using an appropriate car seat is one of the best defenses against injury and death. Hands down.
With all that said, what can you do if you’re still concerned about potentially dangerous chemicals in your seats?
- Don’t leave children in seats longer than necessary. For many reasons, car seats should be for the car, not for lounging or sleeping outside the car for long periods of time. Children left in car seats outside the car are at greater risk for other hazards, too, such as airway obstruction, falls, and strangulation.
- Clean the cover. The cover isn’t the only part of the seat that contains fire retardants, but it’s the part in most direct contact with your child. Wash it (according to manufacturer instructions) to remove any excess chemicals. Remember that aftermarket covers and products are not recommended because they can interfere with the straps and with the ability to properly tighten the harness.
- Avoid excess heat. This is sometimes easier said than done, especially during hot summer months, but heat can cause a greater dissipation of flame retardant chemicals. Park your car in the shade, crack windows, use sun shades, and air out the car before you get in it.
- Vacuum regularly. Flame retardants can gather in dust, so vacuum out your car and your child’s car seat regularly.
- Contact car seat manufacturers to express your concerns. Public pressure leads to results. Some companies have already abandoned the more-concerning chlorinated and brominated fire retardants in favor of the (seemingly and hopefully) less-concerning halogen-free phosphates. If some companies have done it, all of them can.
If, after all this, you’re still panicking over your particular seat, then by all means get a new one. I don’t think it’s necessary, though.
Remember, I don’t take this topic lightly at all, but guess what seat my youngest child is currently riding in? I won’t name names, but it’s among the seats listed as a “highest concern.” I’m not switching him out of it, though. For one, I have no way of knowing whether his particular seat has the same components as the one tested (nor do I know how any new seat I’d get him would compare to the samples they used). I do clean the seat regularly, and we try to keep windows cracked in the summer as long as there’s no threat of rain. I do my best to mitigate his exposure by avoiding flame retardants in other areas, especially in our mattresses and bedding, where my child currently spends about half his life.
I will definitely contact the manufacturer to encourage them to remove brominated fire retardants from ALL their products, but in the meantime, I’m not going to sacrifice the seat in question, which fits well in my car, fits my child well, and is easy for me to use correctly each and every time.