Last night CBS news in San Francisco ran two stories (you can watch them here and here) about flame retardants in car seats. The reporter, Julie Watts, was concerned about the levels of TDCPP (otherwise known as chlorinated tris) found in her Orbit car seat, despite the company having claimed not to use the chemical.
Orbit has long been considered a “safer” choice when it comes to flame retardants. Their website claimed that its seats tested below detectable levels of the fire retardant chemicals known to be the most concerning, like TDCPP. But testing done last year by the Ecology Center found otherwise, and in December it became national news, although not many people seemed to notice. You can read Orbit’s response to Watt’s questions about the claims here.
Watts has been reporting on flame retardants for a long time and has rid her house of foams containing flame retardants. When she was pregnant, she (like many other parents) bought an Obrit system specifically because of their “green” claims. As an Orbit owner and a parent, she was concerned about the Ecology Center’s findings. However, she thought the levels were caused by a temporary supply issue and that her seat wasn’t affected. (This blog post from a retail store that sold Orbit products says that Orbit stopped using OEKO-TEX certified foam when they switched to the G3 line, which was in October 2013.)
But later, when her daughter participated in an unrelated study, Watts learned her child’s levels of TDCPP were alarmingly high. According to her news report, the average child has 5-7 ppb of TDCPP. (Watts herself had 3.8 ppb.) Her daughter had 60 ppb—eight times the average. Because she and her child share a (largely flame-retardant-free) home, and because her daughter doesn’t attend preschool, Watts says she looked to her car seat as the source of the chemical.
Within 24 hours of discontinuing the Orbit’s use, her daughter’s level of TDCPP dropped to 8.68 ppb, and 10 days later it dropped to 4.25 ppb. (TDCPP has a short half-life of under 8 hours in blood and tissue, so it’s not surprising the levels would drop so quickly once the source is removed.) Ultimately, three independent labs identified TDCPP in foam from Watt’s car seat.
Chlorinated flame retardants, like TDCPP, are allowed in car seats, and some other brands have used it, too. If Orbit used it also, there wouldn’t necessarily be anything wrong with that, except the company had made claims to the contrary. Another potential issue is that products containing California Prop 65 chemicals (like TDCPP) are required to include a warning label, which Orbit’s car seats did not. According to Watts’ report and documents from the California Attorney General’s office, Orbit has been served with two Prop 65 violation notices, but settled both out of court and was not required to notify parents. Other manufacturers have also been served with, and settled, Prop 65 notices, so Orbit isn’t necessarily alone in this.
It should be noted that according to Watts, testing of Orbit car seats manufactured in 2015 did not test positive for TDCPP, so the issue is not necessarily ongoing and does not necessarily affect all of its products.
With that said, people are bound to be buzzing about flame retardants in car seats, so let’s tackle some of the questions people might have:
Aren’t there flame retardants in all car seats? Is this really anything to be concerned about?
Federal law requires car seats to meet flammability standards, and they generally can’t do that without the use of chemicals. There’s really no way around it. But there are a lot of flame retardants out there, and there’s no requirement that companies use chlorinated tris/TDCPP.
Some flame retardants are known to be worse than others. Chlorinated tris was voluntarily removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s due to cancer concerns. It’s listed as a Prop 65 chemical in California—one known to cause cancer. It has also been linked to developmental delays and reproductive harm.
The concern is great enough that a few years ago, manufacturers like Graco and Britax vowed to phase out chlorinated tris from its products. Other industries have ceased using TDCPP as well, and in 2012 one of the chemical’s manufacturers announced it would stop producing the chemical by 2015 and had already stopped selling it for use in furniture.
If other industries—and chemical manufacturers themselves—are moving away from chlorinated tris, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the car seat industry would move away from it, too.
Come on! Wouldn’t a kid need to eat a car seat to get any exposure to flame retardants?
Nope. Flame retardants aren’t chemically bonded to the foam or fabric they protect. They can—and do—seep out of foam, where they can settle in dust (which can be inhaled or eaten) or can just leach out onto surrounding objects, like a hand resting on top of a car seat cover or the Cheerios that fell into the crack of the seat. Kids don’t need to put the actual car seat in their mouths to wind up with chemicals in their bodies. How much exposure risk is in a vehicle remains unclear, but studies have confirmed that the substance leeches out of foams in furniture into dust particles. A child in a carseat is restrained in close proximity to the flame retardant in a small, confined space, but the length of time can vary considerably, of course.
But how serious is the risk, really?
I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re all going to wind up with cancer and neurological damage from TDCPP or if none of us will. An expert Watts interviewed for her recent article “explained if someone ingested 5.4 micrograms of the chemical every day, over a lifetime, their cancer risk would be 1 in 100,000.” However, given the other potential risks of the chemical, children’s developing bodies, and the many other exposures people have on a regular basis, we don’t think it’s unreasonable for parents to be concerned about a chemical that has been shown to have detrimental effects, especially when alternatives are available. The other related question regards the risk of not having a flame retardant child seat. Are these flame retardants effective in major car fires, or primarily to reduce the risk from cigarettes and matches?
What can parents do?
You can look for car seats that don’t include TDCPP. The Ecology Center publishes occasional reports showing which flame retardants were found in which seats. The list isn’t exhaustive, and there’s no guarantee that a different batch of seats would test exactly the same, but it’s a start. (We wrote about the latest Ecology Center report here.)
You can also take some steps to avoid exposure. Wash your car seat cover (according to instructions) and vacuum often to eliminate dust. Crack windows in very hot weather and let your car air out–chemicals release faster in the heat. Wash hands often, and don’t let your child spend more time in the car seat than necessary.
More than anything, it’s important to remember that car crashes are a known, common risk and remain the #1 killer of children in most age groups. The known harm from fire retardants is not as concrete. Always use child restraints!