Playing With Poison: Flame Retardants And Children

BY ON December 9, 2013

Little girl on a child's chair reading a book.

It seems everywhere researchers look these days, they find toxic flame retardant chemicals. Last month the Center for Environmental Health released a report on flame retardants in children’s furniture. The Center commissioned a Duke University researcher to test the foam in 42 products. All but four were found to contain flame retardants linked to cancer, infertility, obesity, and other health problems. The furniture was purchased from Walmart, Target, Kmart, BabiesRUs/ToysRUs, Buybuybaby, and other major retailers. I know my couch is full of toxic flame retardant chemicals. (Yours probably is too.) So it’s not that these results are surprising. It’s just that these chairs are so cute, I can hardly believe what’s inside them. You know those squishy, tiny loungers – special kid-size chairs or sofas, just for your little reader, branded with Thomas the Tank Engine, Cinderella, Shreck, Spidey, and Elmo. And what a great image it conjures: my child will sit in her cozy chair, reading! How ironic.

The four flame retardant chemicals identified in this study – Firemaster 550, TCPP, Chlorinated Tris or TDCPP, and Butylated Triphenyl Phosphate – are linked to hormone disruption and cancers. And they’re coming from furniture items that play directly into a parent’s desire to nurture our child’s growth and development. Flame Retardants Do Not Protect Us From Fires One thing flame retardants are not linked to: Preventing deaths in actual fires. These industrial chemicals, which now pervade so many of our consumer products, don’t even work to provide the fire safety benefit claimed by the manufacturers. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times:

These flame retardants represent a dizzying corporate scandal… The story goes back to the 1970s, when the tobacco industry was under pressure to make self-extinguishing cigarettes because so many people were dying in fires caused by careless smokers. The tobacco industry didn’t want to tinker with cigarettes, so it lobbied instead for requiring flame retardants in mattresses and couches. This became a multibillion-dollar boondoggle for the chemical industry, but studies showed that flame retardants as actually used in sofas don’t prevent fires.

The Center for Environmental Health suggests that parents avoid products that contain foam. Instead, purchase furniture with polyester fill, or products made of wood, wool, canvas, and other natural materials.

Gymnasts Exposed to High Levels of Flame Retardants As further evidence of widespread exposure to flame retardant chemicals, a recent small study of 11 college gymnasts shows that the athletes had high levels of BDE-153, a breakdown product of the flame retardant PBDE, in their blood. Their levels were comparable to workers who face high occupational exposure to this chemical, such as foam recyclers.  Gymnasts often practice in “pits” filled with blocks of chemically-treated polyurethane foam. PBDE comes in three forms (penta, octa, and deca), and several states have banned some forms of the chemical due to concerns over health effects and its persistence in our bodies. But foam products containing these chemicals stay in our homes for years if not decades – some of the foam blocks in the pit where gymnasts practice can be decades old – and since the flame retardant chemicals are not bound to the foam, they can continue to migrate into the air for the life of the product.

Mardi Gras Beads: Spiking Your Celebration With Toxic Chemicals And another product that contains flame retardants at high levels: plastic Mardi gras beads. A new study from Michigan-based nonprofit The Ecology Center found high levels of lead, bromine, chlorine, phthalates, and several hazardous flame retardants in plastic Mardi gras beads and holiday beaded garland. Because of the chemical composition of the beads and the internal structure of the product, researchers concluded that recycled plastic was the likely filler ingredient in the beads. And whereas recycling sounds like a good idea, this study highlights some of the potential problems. Because there are so many plastic products that contain flame retardant chemicals, recycling a mixed plastics stream can lead to new routes of exposure to potentially toxic chemicals. Photo: Center For Environmental Health


TOPICS: Toxics