Browse the aisles of your local baby store and you can find a dizzying array of products claiming to help new parents deal with every single detail of parenting. There are dozens – hundreds – of gadgets, gizmos, and contraptions, all positioning themselves as “can’t-live-without” features of the $23 billion baby care industry. But some of these products provide a dose of something new parents certainly CAN live without: Toxic chemicals.
Why? Regulatory voids, legal loopholes, and the political sway of the chemical industry conspire to put potentially toxic chemicals in even baby products. Add to that the shortage of information about what goes into the products we buy, and new parents should rightly be wary.
That’s why the Getting Ready for Baby coalition makes it their business to gather information about what’s on store shelves at baby stores. Their latest report, “Every Baby Deserves Healthy Gear,” documents the trail of toxic flame-retardants in baby products.
Flame Retardant Whack-a-Mole
A recent study from Getting Ready for Baby looked at baby products containing polyurethane foam. Their tests suggest that potentially harmful flame-retardant chemicals are still being added to some foam changing pads, portable cribs, and bassinets.
For decades, such chemicals — linked to learning disabilities, infertility, and cancers — have been added to foam-based products as flame-retardants. They are meant to prevent fires, but scientists disagree about the fire safety benefits of these industrial chemicals.
One flame retardant, called chlorinated Tris, was banned in children’s pajamas in 1977 because of concern over its safety. But because the ban was limited to children’s pajamas, and did not extend to other uses, chlorinated Tris showed up decades later in couches and baby products nationwide. It had come into sudden, widespread use as a replacement for another flame retardant, PentaPDBE, banned in 2006 over concerns about its impact on the brain.
It’s like a game of whack-a-mole, played with our children’s health.
In 2012, my couch tested positive for chlorinated Tris, so I have a very personal stake in the matter.
How do baby products fit in?
Baby products like strollers, sleep positioners, high chairs, soft toys, and play pads are hardly the first items to burn in a fire, yet they too have historically been doused with flame-retardants at the factory. That’s because they are made with polyurethane foam, a highly flammable substance.
Until recently, a California regulation (known as Technical Bulletin 117, or TB117) made it almost impossible for manufacturers to sell foam products without adding large quantities of flame retardant chemicals to the foam. And because the California market is so large, those regulations drove the use of these chemicals nationwide.
Thankfully, a 2013 change in TB117 made it easier for manufacturers to avoid adding chemicals to baby products with polyurethane foam.
Some stores, like Buy Buy Baby, have shown leadership by refusing to stock items containing these chemicals.
But other stores, like Babies R Us, are lagging behind. The recent testing from Getting Ready for Baby showed that some Babies R Us products still contain unnecessary flame-retardant chemicals linked to health problems in children.
How parents can get toxic chemicals out of baby products:
Parents shouldn’t have to police products marketed to infants and toddlers. (Isn’t that our government’s job?) But evidence of toxic flame-retardants in some baby products shows that we need to. Here are tips for avoiding flame-retardants in your baby products.
(These tips are relevant not just to baby products, but all products containing foam — including sofas, chairs, and any upholstered furniture.)
- Seek out TB117 2013. This label indicates the product meets the updated California standard, which makes it easier for manufacturers to meet the requirements without the use of toxic chemicals. Products labeled as meeting TB117 2013 are more likely not to contain flame retardant chemicals – though it is not a guarantee.
- Avoid TB117. Products labeled with TB117 compliance – without the addition of “2013” – are meeting a standard that virtually requires the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals. This doesn’t guarantee the presence of toxic flame-retardants, but it is a strong signal of such.
- Look for items that are labeled as free of chemical flame-retardants. Can’t tell? Ask the retailer.
- Shop at retailers that have made a commitment to phasing out dangerous flame-retardants from their products. These include Macy’s, IKEA, Ashley Furniture, Walmart, Buy Buy Baby, and others. (See here, here, and here.)
- Look for products made in 2014 or later; the later the better. Newer foam has fewer flame-retardants.
- Avoid purchasing older foam products at second hand sales. Also, don’t use products where the foam is exposed, crumbling, or seems to be giving off dust.
- Look for products that do not contain polyurethane foam. Wool, for example, is naturally flame resistant.