Toxic flame retardants in car seats ignite concerns about children’s health

Toxic flame retardants in car seats ignite concerns about children’s health
© iStock/Mitsuo Tamaki

Study has found toxic flame retardants in newly manufactured children’s car seats, sparking concerns about children’s health.

According to a new study conducted by Indiana University, USA, scientists found toxic flame retardants in newly manufactured children’s car seats, whereby of the 18 children’s car seats tested, 15 contained new or traditional hazardous flame-retardant chemicals, raising serious concerns about children’s health.

Toxic flame retardants found in children’s products

Marta Venier, associate scientist at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and principal investigator on the study explains: “New replacement flame retardants, often marketed as safer alternatives, are lurking in children’s products without rigorous safety testing and may pose risks for children’s health.”

“The abundance of emerging flame-retardant chemicals in children’s car seats and the key role these products play as potential sources of chemical exposure is a cause for concern.”
The car seats tested in this particular study were purchased and shipped to Indiana University to be investigated. All car seats were newly manufactured between January 2017 and February 2018 and were made in China, Canada, or the United States. In total, the researchers tested 36 different fabric and foam samples from 18 car seats.

In the samples tested, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were observed in 75% of the samples, despite being phased out of use in the United States in 2013 over health concerns. However, these toxic flame retardants were detected at such low levels that it is unlikely they were added intentionally, moreover, there may have been impurities or parts that have been found that contain recycled materials.

Nevertheless, decabromodiphenyl ethane (DBDPE) was detected in four samples at high levels, suggesting that it was intentionally used. DBDPE is a brominated flame retardant known to cause oxidative stress, hormone disruption and thyroid problems.

Raising children’s health concerns

Unlike other baby products, it is mandatory for children’s car seats to meet the flammability standards for car interiors outlined in the USA Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 302, which was created in 1971 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Flame retardants are routinely used as a cost-effective way to meet this standard. However, flame retardants have been linked to a variety of negative health effects, including hormone disruption, impaired brain development, liver damage and cancer. Children are more vulnerable to these effects than adults because of their smaller size and their tendency to put their hands and objects in their mouths.

Young children can be exposed to flame retardants in car seats by breathing in chemicals that filter into the air out of fabrics and foam. This is particularly problematic for children during the summer months, when heat increases the rate at which flame retardants enter the poorly ventilated, semi-closed car environment. Moreover, toxic flame retardants can be ingested via the dust which accumulates inside the vehicle, through skin contact or by chewing on their car seats.

“We found that car seat manufacturers are intentionally moving away from certain toxic chemicals compounds that they know to be harmful, which is good news,” adds Yan Wu, a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University and the lead author of the study.

“However, we know very little about the replacement chemicals they’re using. Car seats are vital for protecting children during a vehicle crash, but more research is needed to ensure that those seats are chemically safe as well.”

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