Toxic Chemicals Found in Child Car Seats

Study raises concern, but car seats remain vital to small traveler safety

Child in car a seat Photo: Getty Images

While progress is being made, child car seats designed to provide safety for small children still contain toxic chemicals, according to a study published by the Ecology Center’s Healthy Stuff lab. Despite the concerns raised by this study, using a properly installed child safety seat is still the best way to transport a child by car. 

The 2022 study showed that while car seat companies have made significant improvements in reducing children’s exposure to the toxic chemicals found in flame retardants, some seats, particularly those with lower prices, still contain some potentially harmful chemicals. The study highlights the good news that 42 car seat models from eight companies are now marketed as being free of flame retardant (FR). That compares with just eight seats and four companies in 2018. Chemical flame retardants are added to the seats to meet federally mandated flammability requirements for vehicle interiors.

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Previous studies have shown that car seats can have flame retardants that contain chlorine or bromine, which are known to have health and environmental consequences. As a replacement, phosphorus-based flame retardants are now more prevalent, but there is little information about whether those also might be harmful. Of the 22 car seats tested from the U.S. market for this study, exactly half contained phosphorus-based flame retardants.

According to the study, phosphorus-based flame retardants made without halogens have increased in usage as concerns about halogenated flame retardants have grown. Their use in everyday products has led to their widespread presence in the earth’s fresh water, despite that their toxicity profiles are mostly unknown, according to the study. 

The study highlighted that the presence of these chemical flame retardants may affect lower-priced car seats more. The addition of the flame retardants is a less-expensive way of meeting the flammability requirements than using specialized fabrics that can do so more naturally. Car seat companies have difficulty producing child car seats under $100 without added flame retardants, according to the study.

There are ongoing questions as to whether or not the flame retardants are necessary for a vehicle interior and consequently child seats. Consumer Reports supports the reduction of chemical flame retardants in other consumer products. Perhaps more important, we support work for finding new methods for limiting fire with physical barriers and materials.

What Can You Do?

  • Continue to use your child restraint. The risk of your child being hurt in a crash is far greater than the known issues surrounding the chemical exposure.
  • Limit use outside the car. For a number of other safety reasons related to your child’s development, ability to breathe, and overall safety, as well as limiting their exposure to such chemicals, you should avoid using your child seat for extended periods that don’t include travel. Your child’s car seat shouldn’t be used for long periods of sleeping, eating, or playing.
  • Keep seats clean. Take some time to periodically vacuum not only the seat but also the vehicle’s interior. This will help limit the amount of dust, which is where chemicals released from the seat or vehicle’s interior may settle.