Toxic chemicals found in child car seats

Study raises concern, but seats are still vital to small traveler safety

Published: June 04, 2015 07:00 AM

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The very seats designed to provide safety for small children have been found to be at risk for containing toxic chemicals, according to an updated study released today by Still, despite the concerns raised by this study, using a properly installed child safety seat is the best way to transport a child by car. We’ll explain…

None of the seats evaluated by the Michigan-based Ecology Center in this study were found to be free of potentially harmful chemicals. In fact, 11 out of 15 seats contained halogenated flame retardants. The disconcerting chemicals are often added as flame retardants to the seats to meet federally mandated flammability requirements of the vehicle interior. What’s important to know, however, is that those same foams are key to absorbing energy in a crash and protecting your child from injury.

The concerns stem from the detection of chemicals like bromine and chlorine, which are used in some flame retardants. Such halogenated flame retardants have been linked to a variety of health issues. In addition, many are considered persistent (they don’t break down to something safer over time) and bioaccumulative (they build up in your system).

One such chemical, a carcinogen known as chlorinated tris, was found in two seats. It was removed from children’s pajamas many years ago. Though it is prohibited in many states, it is still in use elsewhere. This and other flame retardants can be released from the foams and fabrics of products through regular use. They settle into the air and, in particular, the dust in the vehicle.

Though chemicals like bromine and chlorine detected as indicators of the flame retardants are a concern, perhaps even more troubling was the presence of heavy metals like lead and chromium in a small number of the tested child seats. Those present more clearly documented health risks, and are limited by Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standards for use in other child products. Children may also be exposed to similar flame retardants and chemicals in furniture, carpets, and other child products.  

Although the study’s results were troubling, the accompanying report notes that things may be improving. Results indicate a slight overall decline in one type of flame retardant when compared to tests of seats in previous years and additional regulations may be limiting their use worldwide. Child seat manufacturers, such as Britax and Clek, have also moved to use less-hazardous flame retardants, though even those may still present some health risks according to the study. These companies have also worked to put important internal specifications in place that limit other dangerous chemicals from being used; make use of the flame retardants only where specifically needed; and require suppliers to disclose all formulations.

Studies are also being conducted into whether or not the flame retardants are necessary at all for a vehicle interior. Consumer Reports has supported the reduction of chemical flame retardants in other consumer products. Perhaps more importantly, we support work for finding new methods for limiting fire with physical barriers and materials. We have also worked with organizations like the CPSC in placing limits on the harmful metals.  

What can you do?

  • Continue to use your child restraint. The risk of your child being hurt in a crash is far more prevalent than the known issues surrounding the chemical exposure.   
  • 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 as an alternative location for long periods of sleeping, eating, or playing.
  • Take some time to periodically vacuum not only the seat, but also your 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.

Learn about keeping children safe on the road in our guide to kids and car safety.

Jennifer Stockburger & Urvashi Rangan

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