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Report finds nearly 3/4 of car seats tested still contain toxic flame retardants

Jun 4, 2015

Flame retardant chemicals can migrate out of products like car seats and build up in dust.
Credit CDC

The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor has just come out with its 5th report on toxic chemicals in car seats. The nonprofit group analyzes car seats for the presence of heavy metals and flame retardants.  Flame retardant chemicals can migrate out of products like car seats and build up in dust, and then they can get into our bodies.

Gillian Miller, staff scientist with the Ecology Center, says the center analyzed the chemical makeup of 12 different brands of car seats.

"We found 10 different flame retardants among the various seats in different components. We found a few brominated and chlorinated flame retardants which are of particular concern; we call those 'halogenated' as a class," she says.

She says these two categories of chemicals are highly toxic and very persistent in the environment.

"Those are a concern just as a chemical class, and then we found four different halogen-free - so, no bromine or chlorine - chemicals that we call 'phosphate-based' as a short term."

Those are newer chemicals, and she notes that car seat companies have intentionally been moving to the phosphates and away from halogenated flame retardants.

"We've been in communication with some of companies who are trying to eliminate halogens, but the phosphate-based chemicals, in many cases, have not been studied especially thoroughly," says Miller. "We're not quite sure what the health effects might be. Some of them might be less persistent in the environment; on the other hand, some of the phosphates have been found in Arctic air, so we know they are traveling long distances. "

She says these chemicals are also being found in people, when researchers do bio-monitoring - testing people's bodies for chemicals.

Miller notes they did not test concentrations of these chemicals in the car seats - they just tested for the presence of the chemicals.

"That would be a great research question that would require more time and expense. We are asking companies, as one of our recommendations, if you can't eliminate a chemical, then use as little of it as you possibly can."

Miller emphasizes that car seats are crucial for the safety of your child, and it's essential that you use them.

"They're successful in terms of crash safety and that's incredibly important. So we don't ever want to scare people off."

Here's an excerpt from the report:

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of seats tested contained hazardous halogenated flame retardants and over half contained non-halogenated organophosphate flame retardants, some of which are hazardous as well. The study finds the hazardous flame retardant chemicals and alternatives used by companies are poorly regulated, putting consumers at risk, and questions the fire safety benefit of using these chemicals. Top rated companies in the study, Britax and Clek, have been aggressively implementing policies to reduce hazards in their products while still meeting all safety standards.  The poorest performing company was Graco.

The Ecology Center identified three car seats made by Graco, Baby Trend and Orbit Baby as highest on their list of concern. Baby Trend and Orbit Baby have not yet responded to requests for comment.

In an email statement, a spokesperson for Graco Children's Products wrote:

As a clarification to a recent Child Car Seat Study by HealthyStuff.org, Graco can confirm that all products manufactured after March 1, 2014 do not contain HBCD and we were compliant to the UN/Stockholm Convention well in advance of the November 26, 2014 mandate.  

According to the study itself, the presence of UBC (“Unidentified Brominated Compounds”) detected in the Graco Turbobooster sample that was tested provides no evidence or verification that the unidentified compounds are actually a flame retardant or harmful. While TBC and TBEP were detected in the two Graco car seat samples tested, there is no current credible science or data to suggest these compounds are hazardous to consumers and they are not currently banned by the federal government, Canada, nor the European Union. Graco will continue to aggressively evaluate the potential hazards posed as a result of the chemicals used in our products and will not hesitate to change any substances that have reliable scientific evidence to cause harm to our consumers.”

You can read the full statement from Graco here.

How can parents make an informed decision?

The Ecology Center has published a consumer guide to help parents and child caregivers. Miller notes they were only able to test 15 car seat models.

"We encourage people to first check a company's website to see if they have a publicly disclosed policy around chemicals. " she says. Miller says if you can't find a chemical policy on the company's website, it's a good idea to call the company and ask them.

Keep your car clean

Lastly, Miller says that making a habit of vacuuming your car and car seat will reduce exposure to flame retardants. The flame retardant chemicals that migrate out of car seats tend to stick to dust. Then, kids can get the dust on their hands and ingest the chemicals when they put their hands in their mouths.

"Keeping it clean will reduce the contaminated dust, which is a big source of exposure for kids and adults," she says.

*This post has been updated.