Before buying a child’s car seat, responsible parents will carefully review safety ratings for the dozens of brands and models on the market. But they should also look closely at the use of toxic chemicals.
According to a new report from the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., toxic flame retardants are still widely used in car seats, even though there’s no data showing they protect children from fires.
Researchers tested 15 infant and toddler car seats from a variety of brands for flame retardants and other toxic chemicals. Brands tested included BabyTrend, Britax, Chicco, Clek, Cosco, Diono, Evenflo, Joie, Maxi-Cosi, Nuna, Orbit, Recaro, Safety 1st and Graco.
Flame retardants were found in all car seats tested. Brominated chemicals – which are typically persistent and bioaccumulative, and are often toxic – were found in 13 out of 15 car seats. Chemicals detected included carcinogens and hormone disruptors.
The authors say this year’s findings are an improvement from those of previous years, but there is still a lot about which to be concerned. For the first time, flame retardants were found to be widespread in the fabrics of car seats, not just in the internal foam cushions.
Because their bodies are still developing, babies and infants who spend many hours in car seats are especially vulnerable to the effects of flame retardants in dust and fumes. Young children also breathe in more air and are exposed to more dust particles relative to body weight than adults. Babies and toddlers constantly put their hands in their mouths, which can also increase exposure.
But despite these alarming findings, there is good news: car seat manufacturers have made progress in eliminating the worst chemicals.
In 2011, EWG staffers and supporters clipped samples of foam from car seats and other children’s products. Tests found chlorinated Tris, a fire retardant known to cause cancer in lab animals, and other highly toxic chemicals. This year, for the first time since the Ecology Center started testing car seats in 2006, none contained chlorinated Tris.
EWG has long advocated for the removal of unnecessary and toxic chemicals from consumer products. Flame retardant chemicals are generally unnecessary and exposures could harm health. A series of EWG studies have documented higher concentrations of several flame retardant metabolites in kids compared to their mothers. This could be because kids play on the floor and stick their hands, or other items, in their mouths.
While most baby products no longer contain flame retardant chemicals, federal regulations still require car seat manufacturers to comply with strict flammability standards. In the 44 years since this regulation passed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found no evidence that adding flame retardant chemicals to car seats protects children in vehicle fires.
The Ecology Center cautions parents that car seats provide vital crash protection and that, regardless of chemical hazard, they should use them for babies and young children. But some seats are healthier than others. The Ecology Center maintains a database of 355 car seats screened for toxic chemicals.
What simple actions can parents take?
Review the report and look for a suitable car seat with fewer flame retardants.
Ban eating in the car, if possible, to reduce the amount of flame retardant chemicals that get on kids’ hands and into their mouths.
Wash your and your child’s hands often to reduce toxic residues that get into our bodies through dust – especially for babies whose normal way of exploring is to put their hands and other items in their mouths.
Vacuum your car and your child’s car seat often.