If you’ve stumbled onto this page, then you are no doubt looking for information about how brominated flame retardants could be covering your baby’s pajamas and car seats, household furniture, and other items which could be causing harm to your family’s health. As always, I am not an expert in this field by any means, but I am a concerned parent just like you, and I felt the need to find out as much as I could about these chemicals that could be dangerous to our health and to let my outrage help raise awareness among others.
Long story short: If you have a child that wears non tight-fitting pajamas sized between 9 months all the way up to size 14, there is a VERY GOOD chance that they have been treated with a brominated flame retardant that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and has been shown to cause physical harm to humans. If you have baby accessories made before 2014, there is a VERY GOOD chance they have been treated. Even today, nearly every car seat available will contain some kind of flame retardant by law.
The Facts Behind Fire-related Deaths and Injury
Frankly, I’m furious that these flame retardants are an issue that we even have to worry about – why are chemicals always an answer to a problem that we can prevent with a little common sense?
Although children dying in house fires is an utterly tragic event that we should make every possible effort to prevent – most fire-related deaths are caused by smoke inhalation and have nothing to do with the clothing that people are wearing. Once the fire is started, the smoke makes it very hard for people to escape the house due to the lack of oxygen and disorientation and the process of burning household items and building materials also releases dangerous fumes that are extremely toxic. Once the fire has started, people likely only have a couple of minutes to get out.
Shouldn’t we be more concerned with working to prevent those fires in the first place?
There is a real argument to be made that if brominated flame retardants can lead to even one life saved, then they should be used without question. A more holistic way of looking at this, at least from my viewpoint, is asking whether we can justify using chemicals that have a demonstrated ability to physically harm our families when they aren’t likely making much of an impact in the first place.
What Are Brominated Flame Retardants?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are organohalogens that make up the most heavily used flame retardants in the commercial market because they are cheap to make and work efficiently. Companies add them to the materials used to make electronics, clothing, and furniture padding to make them less likely to catch fire and more likely to extinguish themselves once the original flame extinguishes. Basically, the intent is to reduce the risk that specific items will burn your house down or let someone’s clothes catch on fire.
In theory, all of this is a grand idea – who wants their loved ones and possessions to catch on fire, after all?
Past problems with brominated flame retardants
The problem is that some evidence has shown that these chemicals could be causing negative side effects in humans and might not even be helpful in preventing fires in the first place. In fact, some of these BFRs, such as Tris 2,3-dibromopropyl phosphate (Tris-BP) and polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) were phased out in the 1970’s because of their horrible mutagenic effects (changes your DNA) and are currently listed within the Federal Hazardous Substances Act which forbids their use in children’s products. Currently, other BFRs such as brominated bisphenols, cyclododecanes, and diphenyl ethers are all still in commercial use, but research is showing that there are risks associated with these chemicals as well.
What Are The Health Risks of Brominated Flame Retardants?
Over the years, research shows brominated flame retardants link to a whole host of scary side effects in animal trials, and there have been similar problems found in humans as well despite less formal testing. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are some of the most studied and the Environmental Protection Agency highlights the fact that the National Toxicology Program found clear evidence of carcinogenicity in rodent testing – many rats developed large tumors in their liver as they aged. They also point out other research showing that they can cause neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, thyroid toxicity, immunotoxicity, liver toxicity, and cancer. All of these issues can lead to lower IQ, problems with fertility, advanced puberty, obesity, and tumors, among other things.
One of the problems is that they are hard to avoid
Chemicals like this are so prevalent in our everyday lives that nearly everyone has some exposure to them at some point. A recent paper published by Biomed Research International showed that everyone tested positive for at least one kind of PBDE and one particular type, PBDE 47, was found in every person. Once they get into the body, they can accumulate over time, and they store themselves in the fat cells of humans. Because these chemicals are usually sprayed onto the materials they are meant to protect, they can quickly be absorbed through the skin or inhaled through house dust that picks up some of the chemicals. Probably the scariest part is that these BFRs can pass to babies through the placenta and breast milk which means that newborn babies and fetuses could be getting exposure at a very critical stage of their development. They have also been found throughout the food chain, especially in oceans, and eating those foods can lead to further exposure.
So, basically, we were forced to use these chemicals for decades and now our children will suffer as well due to the fact that they are so persistant in the environment and able to pass through the breast milk of nursing mothers.
Flame Resistant Pajamas and the History of BFR’s
Let’s not forget that putting flame resistant chemicals in pajamas stemmed from a genuine problem in America’s history – children’s deaths and injuries related to clothes that easily caught on fire. Back in the day, a lot of manufacturers used rayon as material for children’s sweaters, and cowboy chaps and it was soon discovered that it was extremely flammable and could ‘flash burn’ quickly while children were still wearing the clothes. The problem was serious enough that the U.S. government passed the Flammable Fabrics Act in 1953 which mandated that children’s pajamas, mattresses, and other items be flame-resistant. Later, in 1975, California introduced their Technical Bulletin 117 which helped set a precedent for using the same chemicals on more furniture and household items. Many states and government bodies followed their lead by making similar mandates.
A painfully slow rate of progress
For years, this meant that clothing manufacturers were literally forced to put these chemicals onto their products and it took over twenty years for people to realize that they were causing irreparable harm to their children and families. Like I mentioned before, it wasn’t until 1977 that the world took notice and started working towards removing these dangerous additives.
Incredibly enough, it wasn’t until the year 1996 when the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to change the law to allow tight-fitting pajamas to be exempt from the chemical additives. The idea here is that tight-fitting clothing will be less likely to drape into a flame and less access to oxygen will reduce the fire risk.
Apparently, it takes about twenty years at a time to reconsider improving our children’s chemical safety because it took until 2014 for California to amend their 1975 fire safety to exempt the majority of baby-related items from their list of flammability standards with their update to the original bulletin, 117-2013. Note that pajamas are not on this list.
Here’s the list of what they exempted:
- Booster seats
- Changing pads
- Floor play mats
- Highchairs and highchair pads
- Infant bouncers, seats, swings, and walkers
- Nursing pads
- Playpens (side pads)
- Padded play yards
- Portable ‘hook-on’ chairs
PLEASE NOTE: AT NO TIME DID ANYONE ACTUALLY BAN THESE BROMINATED FLAME RETARDANTS! They just aren’t required to add them now.
The good news is that manufacturers concerned with their customers’ safety can now use more natural methods to create their products and we should hopefully see a shift in the availability of flame retardant free items that our babies are using every day.
Why Are Flame Retardant Free Car Seats Still Hard to Find?
If you’ll notice, car seats were not on the exemption list above, and I haven’t really mentioned them yet. Basically, infant car seats fall within the same flammability standards that actual vehicle seats are held to which is handled by a whole different set of laws. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has set flammability requirements for car seats since 1981 and, unfortunately, this usually results in companies using flame retardants in car seats to be compliant.
As recently as 2016, The Ecology Center released their periodic roundup testing of car seats available in the market and found that all 15 of the car seats tested positive for flame retardants of some kind and the majority included brominated flame retardants. Many have stopped using specific chemicals that have ‘known hazards,’ but the effects of the substitutes have not been tested and could have the same issues.
Fortunately, at least one company is leading the charge to make flame retardant free car seats – UPPAbaby. They use naturally fire-resistant wool in their seats to comply with regulation without the added chemicals.
After looking into this topic for quite a while, I’m discovering that it is tough to pin down exactly which chemicals might be found in a specific article of clothing or even which chemicals are still being used today. The problem is that while the industry may have ‘phased out’ some of the nastier chemicals, nothing has ever been outright banned by the government and there appears to be little oversight into what manufacturers are actually using, and many are not required to be disclosed on a label.
Your best bet is to research any item thoroughly before you buy it to see whether or not brominated flame retardants have been included. Just because many baby items are exempt from HAVING to contain flame retardants doesn’t mean that companies aren’t putting them in there. Labels that say ‘flame resistant’ should be approached with caution as that means there is likely some chemical involved. Conversely, if the label says ‘contains no added flame retardants’ or something along the lines of ‘warning: does not comply with flammability standards’ then you are probably good to go, chemically speaking.
Earlier safety standards mean that older or hand-me-down baby items almost certainly have some kind of brominated flame retardant in their fabric and/or foam padding and this includes children’s pajamas. These materials will release the flame retardants over time in dust, leading to contamination in the home for your family.