Among the warning labels and safety instructions plastered all over your extensively-researched, top-dollar, highest-safety-rated, Consumer Reports-approved car seat, there is no sticker that says, “Beware! Chemicals in this seat may give your baby cancer someday.” But maybe there should be!
A study released today in Environmental Science & Technology reveals that multiple chemicals that “pose significant health risks” are still to be found—sometimes in frightening amounts—in all kinds of “must-have” infant and baby supplies, including nursing pillows (I used one of those), car seats (you drive your tiny infant home in one and get bigger and bigger ones as she grows), and highchairs (every baby’s got one).
“Infants are exposed to multiple retardants,” the study’s authors conclude. And they estimated that infants’ exposure to one particular chemical—TDCPP—likely exceeds the Consumer Product Safety Commission‘s acceptable daily intake levels.
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Unfortunately, the flame retardants banned in kid’s pajamas in the 1970s because they were found to cause cancer in animals, were removed from kid’s pajamas but not banned from other uses.
Lead researcher Heather M. Stapleton, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University, and her team collected baby product samples from 13 states. They tested 101 products in all. And the findings are certainly disquieting. As Andrew Martin wrote in the New York Times:
Over all, 80 of the  products contained chemical flame retardants of some kind, some of which are considered toxic, though legal to use. In one instance, flame retardants represented 12 percent of the weight of the foam in a changing pad; most products were closer to 3 to 5 percent. Fourteen of the products contained the flame retardant TCEP, which the State of California describes as a cancer-causing agent. Four of them contained Penta-BDE, a flame retardant that builds up in human tissue and that manufacturers voluntarily phased out in 2004; it is banned in many countries, but not the United States, and in some states, including New York.
I suppose the irony is that flame retardants are intended—like the car seats that contain them—to protect babies. Indeed, manufacturers argue that fire retardants have “vastly reduced the number of fire deaths caused by upholstered furniture.” Critics of the chemicals dispute this claim—and, some suggest it’s never been proven (far better, many contend, to have improved building codes requiring smoke detectors and water sprinklers, self-extinguishing cigarettes, and decreased rates of smoking.)
Industry spokespeople also suggest that plastic coverings protect infants from exposure to the toxics and that studies are inconclusive without looking at exposure. As Martin reports, consumer advocates, on the other hand, say that flame retardants “can migrate from furniture to household dust, and can be ingested by people and pets.” And the study’s authors write that “these chemicals can also escape readily from foams,” pointing to the more volatile ones which can be off-gassed and inhaled. The problem is that babies spend a great deal of time right next to these products, moving innocently from one polyurethane foam-filled item to the next throughout their day. And of course, infants are more vulnerable to toxins because their brains and bodies are still developing.
Plus, any parent knows that babies chew on just about everything (as do many pets) and that the plastic coverings can’t possibly seal in the bad stuff forever.
The fact is, we need look no further than the scores of studies that show conclusively that flame retardants are accumulating in our bodies to know that we’re being exposed. Research from just last year showed that children bear high burdens of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants in their bodies (even compared to their own mothers to control for variability between households, diets, and even genetics.)
Another irony is that on the one hand California has taken a lead in banning some harmful retardants, but on the other imposes a unique flammability standard that drives manufacturers’ use of flame retardants in the first place. With no other state or federal standard, many manufacturers comply with the California rule because of the size of that market. (CA recently exempted strollers).
The result is that Californian kids seem to have accumulated more flame retardants in their bodies than their counterparts living elsewhere. A study conducted by UC-Berkeley researchers measured a group of flame retardants, called PBDEs, in 264 Mexican-American children born and raised in California and compared their levels to 283 children born and raised in the same areas of Mexico from where their mothers had emigrated. NRDC reports the findings, insisting that the standards do more harm than good:
The California children’s levels of PBDEs were seven times higher, on average, than levels in the Mexican children. The California children, who were 7 years old, had three times higher levels of PBDEs than their mothers. And most disturbing, the California children had the highest PBDE levels ever measured in a U.S. study of children. The only study which has ever reported higher levels of PBDE exposure was in children living and working in hazardous waste sites in Nicaragua.
California homes were also shown to have up to ten times higher amounts of PBDEs in house dust when compared to other parts of the United States or Canada.
(Don’t even get me started on studies that link elevated PBDEs in children to decreased IQ and other neurodevelopmental impairments.)
Still, one of the reasons we don’t simply ban these toxics outright—especially the worst offenders—is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to unequivocally link disease and health problems to specific substances—especially when exposure is difficult to d
etermine for any given population. Elizabeth Royte does a nice job explaining why (she recently wrote a review of “What’s Gotten Into Us?: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World,” by McKay Jenkins, in the NYT). It’s maddeningly difficult to prove conclusively that multisyllabic compounds are harming us,” she writes, reminding us that the European Union doesn’t require such proof: “guided by the precautionary principle, it has banned entire categories of chemicals from use in consumer goods.” The problem is that “in medicine, cause and effect are not always clear…we lack a control group of purified humans upon which to experiment (even newborns are polluted with synthetic chemicals), if ethics in fact allowed such a thing. Another complication is that chemicals reach us through a variety of exposure routes, in varying combinations and in doses with different effects at different life stages.”
In any case, for me it’s the principle of the matter more than arguments about how little or how much a baby might actually ingest or absorb or whatever, or even the chances that that baby will suffer ill-effects from that exposure sometime in his life—though those are important questions to ask and answer. The bigger question is how we, as a community, weigh chemicals’ and toxics’ harm against their benefits.
Dr. Stapelton—the lead author of the study released today—seems to be on the same page. Indeed, as she points out, current federal oversight of chemicals is so weak that manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants nor are they required to list what chemicals are used. “We can buy things that are BPA free, or phthalate free or lead free. We don’t have the choice to buy things that are flame-retardant free,” Dr. Stapleton told the New York Times. “The laws protect the chemical industry, not the general public.”