Mind & body, Research, Science & environment

Toxic flame retardants found in many foam baby products

A new study has found that many baby products, including nursing pillows, changing pads and strollers, contain levels of flame retardant that could expose infants to more of these chemicals than the government recommends as safe.

Although some flame retardants were banned from baby’s pajamas nearly 40 years ago, similar flame retardants known or suspected to be toxic are still found in infant products ranging from changing pads to nursing pillows, according to a new study appearing today (Wednesday, May 18) in the online edition of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Arlene Blum holds some of the baby products that contain known or untested toxic flame retardants.

Arlene Blum, whose research contributed to the removal of TDCPP or chlorinated Tris from children's pajamas in the 1970s, with nursing pillows that were found to contain the same chemical.

In a survey of 101 commonly used baby products containing polyurethane foam, 80 percent contained toxic or untested halogenated flame retardants. Alarmingly, 36 percent contained a flame retardant, chlorinated Tris, that was removed from pajamas in the 1970s because of concerns that it was as toxic as its banned cousin, brominated Tris.

“I get calls all the time from parents worried about flame retardants in pajamas, but pajamas have not contained Tris since the late 1970s. These parents don’t realize that Tris – the very same Tris that was used in pajamas 30-some years ago – can be found in many baby products at levels around 5 percent by weight,” said Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar in the College of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped originate the study. “One changing pad contained 12 percent by weight of Tris.”

According to Blum, some of these flame retardants are not effective. They are put in furniture products, including baby furniture, nationwide because of a California standard (TB117) mandating that such consumer items withstand a small open flame – a match or cigarette lighter – for 12 seconds without igniting. Yet the foam’s fabric cover, which is not required to be flame resistant, makes such a standard ineffective, she said.

“If you dropped a match on a couch, and it did burn through the fabric, the flame retardants in the foam would only slow burning for a few seconds at best,” Blum said. In fact, a study she and colleagues will present at a fire science meeting in June shows that the use of these chemicals to meet the current California flammability standard does not measurably increase fire safety.

The flame retardants – all but one of them halogenated chemicals, like Tris, that contain bromine or chlorine bound to carbon – are associated with serious adverse health effects in hundreds of animal studies and a handful of human studies, Blum said. She and Bruce Ames, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology, first showed that brominated Tris was a mutagen and presumed carcinogen in the 1970s, which helped lead to a ban on brominated Tris in baby sleepwear in 1977. Although the ban was overturned in a lawsuit by the chemical industry, kid’s pajamas have remained free from both brominated and chlorinated Tris.

Yet flame retardants have remained in many consumer products, including those used by infants and children. And because these chemicals are semi-volatile, they get into the air and drop into dust where they can be ingested or form thin films on walls and windows, Blum said. A recent UC San Francisco study showed that California dust contains as much as eight times the amount of flame retardants as does dust elsewhere in the United States. An April 2011 UC Berkeley study showed that Latino children in the United States have seven times the level of flame retardants in their blood as do children living in Mexico, where flame retardants are less prevalent.

Both animal and humans studies suggest that halogenated flame retardants – those containing bromine or chlorine – can cause endocrine disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and on neurologic function. Last year, for example, a UC Berkeley group reported not only that flame retardants classified as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) altered thyroid function in pregnant women, but that women with high levels of PBDEs in their blood took longer to become pregnant.

Blum, who founded the Green Policy Science Institute in Berkeley three years ago to bring peer-reviewed science into policy decisions on chemicals  like flame retardants, worked with scientists and environmental health organizations to collect 101 used and new baby products containing polyurethane foam. These included changing table pads, nursing pillows, car seats, baby carriers, rocking chairs, high chairs, strollers and portable crib mattresses. Most had been purchased within the last five years, but a few were purchased as early as 2000 and were still in use. Samples were then sent for analysis to Heather Stapleton, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in North Carolina.

Stapleton’s analysis revealed that chlorinated Tris – more formally, tris(1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate, or TDCPP – was the most common flame retardant, found in 36 percent of the foam samples. Second were components of a commercial mixture called Firemaster 550, which was found in 17 percent of the samples. Some samples contained three different flame retardants.

Five of the samples had chemicals suggesting that the foam contained PentaBDE, a PDBE phased out in 2004 but evidently still in some homes, the study said. Two other chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants – including one sold as V6 and containing tris(2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP) as an impurity – were also found. They had not previously been documented in the environment.

“Based on exposure estimates conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), we predict that infants may receive greater exposure to TDCPP from these products compared to the average child or adult from upholstered furniture, all of which are higher than acceptable daily intake levels of TDCPP set by the CPSC,” the study noted.

The study authors urged further study of infants to determine whether “intimate contact” with flame retardants is linked to health problems.

“I have been providing scientific support for an effort to change state flammability standards to maintain or increase fire safety without the use of flame retardants, but that has been a very difficult struggle,” Blum said, noting that flame retardant manufacturers still claim there is no solid peer-reviewed evidence that the chemicals cause health problems. “By providing peer-reviewed science to organizations working on environmental health issues, we can help them be more effective in educating the consumer and influencing decision makers.”

“The California furniture flammability standard called TB117 does not provide proven protection from fire,” she added. “If we can change that requirement, we can have a positive effect worldwide, because these flame retardants are not just a California or U.S. problem, they’ve become global pollutants.”

Blum and Stapleton’s coauthors are Susan Klosterhaus of the San Francisco Estuary Institute in Oakland, Calif.; Alex Keller, P. Lee Ferguson and Ellen Cooper of Duke University; Saskia van Bergen of the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland; and Thomas F. Webster of the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Stapleton and Webster are supported in part by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

For more information: