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Flame Retardant Chemicals in Baby Products: The unintended consequences of a California furniture flammability standard

May 18, 2011

In a paper published on line on May 18, 2011 in Environmental Science & Technology, scientists found that 75% of baby products tested contained toxic or untested flame retardant chemicals. “It’s hard to believe that the same Chlorinated Tris flame retardant that our research helped remove from baby pajamas in the 1970s  is back in use” said Arlene Blum PhD, a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley Chemistry Department and Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute.  “Most of the baby products we tested contained Tris or untested chemicals in the same family. Some contained as many as three different flame retardants.  And these baby products do not pose a fire hazard.”

Manufacturers put flame retardant chemicals into baby products to meet Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), a unique 1975 California flammability standard for foam in juvenile products and upholstered furniture. The chemicals leak from the products into house dust which is ingested by people and pets.  Halogenated flame retardants have been found in the bodies of nearly all North Americans tested, with the highest human levels in young children and Californians.  Pet dogs have higher retardant levels and pet cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.

“I’m always careful to protect my son,” said Holly S. Lohuis, a marine biologist with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Future Society whose son was biomonitored. “I am heart- broken that at age four his levels of flame retardants were like those of an industrial worker.”

Human studies have shown associations between increased flame retardant body levels and reduced IQ in children, endocrine and thyroid disruption, changes in male hormone levels, reduced fertility, adverse birth outcomes, and impaired development.

Moreover, the addition of these chemicals to baby products (and furniture) to meet TB117 does not provide a proven fire safety benefit according to Dr. Vyto Babrauskas, a noted fire safety engineer and co-author of the only textbook written on the topic of fire safety and upholstered furniture: “California’s TB117 is so weak that it does not achieve any useful fire safety purpose.”

The findings regarding the chemicals found in the baby products:

  • More than a third of the baby products tested (baby strollers, changing pads, car seats, nursing pillows, etc), contained a flame retardant known as TDCPP, or Chlorinated Tris, at levels up to 12% of the .weight of the foam in the products.  According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Chlorinated Tris is a probable human carcinogen. The authors estimate that some infants and toddlers are receiving higher exposure to TDCPP than the CPSC acceptable daily intake levels.
  • The second most frequently detected flame retardant additives were ingredients in Chemtura’s Firemaster ® 550. In 2004, the EPA Design for the Environment predicted reproductive, neurological, and developmental toxicity and persistent degradation products for these brominated components of Firemaster 550.  These chemicals have been found in house dust samples, sewage sludge, marine mammals, and Arctic wildlife. They appear to be persistent and lack adequate health information.
  • Fourteen products in the study were found to contain the flame retardant TCEP, which has been identified as a probably carcinogen by the State of California.  The finding of TCEP in nine nursing pillows out of eleven analyzed is of particular concern due to the high level of contact babies and mothers have with nursing pillows and the volatility or tendency of this flame retardant to escape from the product.
  • Five products contained Chemtura’s pentabrominated diphenyl ether (pentaBDE), which was banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.    In addition to many dozens of animal studies showing adverse reproductive, neurological, and endocrine effects from pentaBDE, new studies in humans find similar associations between pentaBDE and lowered IQ, increased time to pregnancy, and adverse hormonal changes.

With all these health problems and no proven fire safety benfit, why are these chemicals added to baby products?

Chemtura, Albermarle, and Israeli Chemicals Limited, the three flame retardants chemical producers, employ lobbyists and spend millions of dollars to support flammability standards that require the use of their chemicals. Our government does not have the authority to require manufacturers to show their chemicals are safe for human health or effective in preventing fires.

According to Holly Lohuis, “We are using our children as guinea pigs for toxic chemical experiments. It is not fair to them or to future generations.”

[1] Heather M. Stapleton , Susan Klosterhaus, Alex Keller, P. Lee Ferguson, Saskia van Bergen, Ellen Cooper, Thomas F. Webster and Arlene Blum ,  Identification of Flame Retardants in Polyurethane Foam Collected from Baby Products,  Environmental Science & Technology, May 18, 2011 



The Green Science Policy Institute (GSP) provides unbiased scientific information to government, industry, and non-governmental organizations to facilitate more informed decision-making about chemicals used in consumer products in order to protect health and environment world-wide.