New Study Reveals Toxic Chemicals in Vast Majority of Children’s Car Seats

CEH finds high levels of toxic flame-retardant chemicals and PFAS in car seat sold in Bay Area

For Immediate Release
: December 3, 2018

Media Contact: Judy Levin, judy@CEH.org, 510-697-3947, Stephanie Stohler, sstohler@hbbf.org, 617-842-4751

Oakland, CA — Today, Ecology Center’s Healthy Stuff program released test results and product ratings in their new 2018 report, Hidden Hazards: Flame Retardants and PFAS in Children’s Car Seats. Ecology Center has been tracking changes in toxic chemical additives of popular car seat brands since 2006. Ecology Center collaborated with researchers from Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame to incorporate detailed analytical results into the Healthy Stuff report as well as for publication, released today, in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The peer-reviewed letter is the first-ever report in scientific literature of the presence of a new flame-retardant chemical in child car seats in North America.

Center for Environmental Health (CEH) contributed to the study by testing the “Baby Trend” car seat formerly sold at an Emeryville Toys R Us store. Of the 18 seats tested, Baby Trend contained some of the highest levels of phosphorus-based flame-retardants in the study. While phosphorus-based FRs still have data gaps and must be carefully studied for health hazards, emerging research finds some are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and persist in the environment.

EDCs interfere with the body’s hormones, and have been linked to cancers, diabetes, stroke, and reproductive problems, and can even be passed onto future generations. Exposure to EDCs is particularly dangerous for children, whose bodies are still developing, making them more vulnerable than adults. The seat also tested high for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Exposure to PFAS chemicals is associated with cancer, thyroid disruption, elevated total cholesterol, obesity as well as other adverse health effects.

Toxic flame retardants have been associated with an array of negative human health effects including reduced IQ, developmental delays, hormone disruption, reproductive harm, obesity, and cancer. These chemicals pose the greatest risk to babies while their bodies and organs are still developing. These findings come on the heels of a landmark bill co-sponsored by CEH to ban flame-retardants from children’s products and upholstery signed into law by California’s Governor Jerry Brown. Car seats are regulated at the federal level, so were not included in the legislation.

“Flame-retardants, as used in car seats, have not been proven to be effective nor relevant in real-life fire scenarios,” said Judy Levin, CEH’s Pollution Prevention Director. “Affordable car seats shouldn’t come with a hidden cost to human health. Child car seats are mandatory safety devices that save lives. There are already green and healthy alternatives without unnecessary flame-retardant chemicals available on the market. We call upon other manufacturers to develop car seats without flame retardant chemicals and work together to help spur a nationwide transition toward safer, healthier, and cost-effective children’s car seats.”

Testing also confirmed that three companies now offer a car seat that does not contain added toxic flame-retardant chemicals, which include: UPPAbaby MESA – Jordan and Henry models (infant), Clek Fllo – Mammoth (convertible), and Nuna Pipa Lite – Fog (infant). Public health groups from across the country are united in a national effort to update the government’s decades-old flammability standards, by publicly calling for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to update their flammability standards in this Change.org petition, allowing more parents the ability to purchase toxic-free car seats.

The Healthy Stuff study tested 18 children’s car seats including infant and convertible models. 80% (15) of the seats contained hazardous flame-retardant chemical additives and 50% (9) likely contained persistent PFAS chemicals on the fabric. All seats tested were purchased in 2018 and manufactured in 2017 or later. Components in each seat were analyzed using multiple methods: chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry at Indiana University, tests for total fluorine content at the University of Notre Dame, and X-Ray Fluorescence and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy at the Ecology Center. Each seat was cut apart in order to test components individually.

New this year, Ecology Center’s testing included a screening for fluorinated chemicals and found them in 50% (9 out of 18) of the car seats tested, including in the car seat purchased by CEH. The chemicals found are most likely PFASs which are added by choice by manufacturers for their stain-resistant properties.

“The entire class of PFAS chemicals are very persistent in the environment. Studies have shown them to be hazardous chemicals that should not be used in children’s products,” says Graham Peaslee, Researcher and Professor of Experimental Nuclear Physics at the University of Notre Dame. “There are safer alternatives available. Not only are children in close contact with these seat fabrics when they are young, but also when these seat covers are discarded. 100% of these PFASs are going to be released into our environment and could end up in drinking water later.”

Compared to Ecology Center’s 2016 report, this year’s study shows there are fewer car seats with brominated flame retardants than in previous years. However, there is an increase in the use of phosphorus-based flame retardants, including the newly reported cyclic phosphonate ester. “The switch from brominated to phosphorus-based flame retardants isn’t necessarily a move to safer chemistry,” explains Gillian Miller, Senior Scientist at Ecology Center. “Several commonly-used phosphorus-based flame retardants show significant endocrine and developmental toxicity and also are persistent in our environment.”

“We applaud the market advances of these three companies,” says Melissa Cooper Sargent of Ecology Center. “But not all families can afford the expensive price tag on flame retardant-free seats.”

The study concludes that the use of hazardous chemicals in most car seat brands is driven by an outdated federal flammability regulation, a major roadblock in the effort towards getting both toxic-free and affordable car seats in the hands of parents. “Companies should be allowed to test their products using an appropriate alternative standard that accounts for realistic fire safety without unnecessary exposures to chemical hazards,” says Gillian Miller, Senior Scientist at Ecology Center.

Children’s car seats are included in the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s flame standard for vehicles, FMVSS 302, originally created in the 1970s. The government has never fully evaluated the effectiveness of the flammability standard for children’s car seats. Many experts suggest FMVSS 302 is not relevant to real-world fire scenarios in cars.

A national coalition of manufacturers, child safety advocates, and public health groups have come together tell car seat companies to get toxic chemicals out of their products and calling for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to update their flammability standards in this Change.org petition, so more parents can have toxic-free car seats and less children are exposed to these unnecessary toxic hazards.

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