Chemicals In Your Child’s Car Seat

August 3, 2011 HealthyStuff.org published sensational test results showing potentially unhealthy chemicals in the majority of children’s car seats.

What does The Car Seat Lady think about these test results?
As a pediatrician, I worry about the chemicals our children are exposed to. However, since car crashes remain the #1 cause of death and injury to children in the US, I worry more about the risks from a car crash than from chemicals found in the car seat.  Therefore, I would urge parents to select a car seat based on the following criteria: the car seat fits the child’s age/weight/height, the seat installs securely in the vehicle, the parent finds it user-friendly enough to use properly on every trip.  

As you will see below, we do not dispute that there are flame retardants in car seats; however, we have serious questions and concerns about the accuracy and validity of the HealthyStuff.org testing and results – and the ability to extrapolate their data into a prediction of risk for a child. HealthyStuff.org freely admits that  “the levels given are not intended to correspond to levels known to cause health effects.” 

Putting this into Perspective:
Unfortunately, the chemicals in the HealthyStuff.org testing – bromine, lead, & chlorine – are not exclusive to children’s car seats, but rather are found extensively throughout your home and vehicle – they are likely in your breastfeeding pillow, bassinet mattress, carpet, kids’ pajamas, bouncy seats, etc.  A 2011 study in the journal of the American Chemical Society found that more than 80% of the baby products they tested (including car seats, mattresses, breast feeding pillows, and more) contained a halogenated flame retardant additive – many of them chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs).  

To put things into perspective, your child likely spends less than 2 hours a day in the car seat, while (hopefully) they spend 10-16 hours a day in a crib.  Therefore, the potential exposure from chemicals in the car seat is far less than the exposure from their crib mattress.  I therefore find it curious that HealthyStuff.org has not tested crib mattresses.  Also, as if there weren’t already enough reasons to avoid using the infant car seat as your child’s crib/stroller seat/swing, etc, here’s another one.

Flame Retardant Standards & Requirements
Many children’s products, including car seats, are required to meet strict flame retardancy standards – which typically requires the use of not-so-healthy chemicals.  HealthyStuff.org notes that in their testing “over half (60%) contained at least one of the chemicals tested for.”  However they did not test for CFRs (Chlorinated Flame Retardants) which are known to be unhealthy.  Why they omitted this chemical, we don’t know.  It makes us wonder if the 40% of seats in their testing that did not contain any of the chemicals they tested for, actually had other unhealthy chemicals – like CFRs.  

As governments take steps to ban certain flame retardants, other chemicals step in to replace the banned ones.  In many instances, the new chemicals are found to be similarly unhealthy compared to the banned ones.  There are companies that are using Oeko-Tex (R) non-brominated, non-chlorinated flame retardants that they claim are “non-toxic and harmless to human health” – but it remains to be seen if these chemicals are truly as healthy as they claim.  

How does the presence of a certain chemical translate into that chemical harming the child?

Flame retardants come in two varieties: additive & reactive.  Additive flame retardants are not chemically bound to the product – which allows them to migrate out of the product and into the environment (i.e. house dust, food chain, sewage sludge) over time. Reactive flame retardants are chemically bound to the material in the product.  While the bound chemicals are not released from the product, any residual unbound (i.e. unreacted) flame retardant can be released and lead to human exposure.  

HealthyStuff.org does not discuss how the chemicals – bromine, chlorine & lead – make their way from the fabric, or the plastic chest clip, or the plastic base of the seat into a child’s body in order to cause potential harm.  Different methods of absorbing a chemical are possible, including: transdermally (through the skin) either via direct contact or if the chemical is volatilized/aerosolized, via inhalation (which would presumably require that the chemical aerosolizes itself), and via ingestion (if the child were to suck/chew on a particular piece).  However, from their information, it is not clear which routes pertain to which chemicals.  If the transdermal route is the only method of absorption for a specific chemical, and the child’s skin does not contact that surface, then even though there is a potentially hazardous chemical in that product it should not be able to harm the child as there is no vehicle for transfer into the child.  This would apply to chemicals in the plastic base/shell of the seat – as the child’s body is typically not in contact with them, but rather just the fabric cover.   Interestingly, Chlorinated Flame Retardants, which were NOT included in HealthyStuff.org’s testing, are known to aerosolize and can therefore spread far beyond the product in which they were originally found.  

What can you do?

The real way to affect change is to encourage the government to change the flame retardant standards – as this is truly the way that unhealthy chemicals will begin to make their way out of our children’s car seats, clothing, and home products.  Write to your local congressman & senator and tell them that you want a healthier environment for your child.  For example, Governor Cuomo of NY just signed a state law banning Tris – a flame retardant – from any children’s product.  In 1977 the US Consumer Products Safety Commission banned Tris’ use in children’s clothing as it is a known carcinogen.

It is important to recognize that flame retardants are put into/on the car seat for a reason – i.e. to slow down the time it takes for your child’s car seat to ignite and incinerate, thereby hopefully giving you a few extra seconds to get the child out of the car seat before the fire spreads.  Altering the fabric cover to your child’s car seat in any way that violates the manufacturer’s instructions will void your warranty – which means that should your child be injured, the manufacturer will not be liable.

Repeated washing/cleaning of any type is likely to decrease the flame retardancy of the fabric – especially the use of soaps.  Soaps contain fats which deteriorate the flame retardants (laundry detergents are not soaps).  Flame retardants and other chemicals are known to off-gas or degrade during exposure to heat and/or UV rays. Therefore, a parent might chose to leave a new car seat out in the hot sun for a few days prior to the child’s first time using it.   When caring for fabrics containing flame retardants, one can follow these instructions to prevent degrading/deteriorating the flame retardancy.  If a parent chose to go against the car seat manufacturer’s instructions and wished to degrade the flame retardancy, the parent could follow the opposite of these care instructions.

Understanding the HealthyStuff.org Testing

The Car Seat Lady feels that before one can interpret data, one must know how the data was obtained and the limitations of the testing methods.  We find it concerning that the news reports did not highlight the significant discrepancies and other potential flaws in the testing methods and results.  Please read our analysis and interpretation of HealthyStuff.org’s methodology and our conclusions below.

DISCREPANT RESULTS AMONGST IDENTICAL PRODUCTS

The following table below lists 6 different Britax car seats that all have the EXACT SAME FABRIC – called the Onyx pattern.  This table highlights how there are VERY discrepant results amongst what should seemingly have identical results.  I can’t seem to understand how there is a difference in 3 orders of magnitude in the Bromine content (54 to 76,286ppm) between the fabrics of these seats – when the fabric is identical.  Even on those seats tested on the same day – 1/1/08 – there is a difference of nearly 2 orders of magnitude  in the Bromine content – 1401ppm to 76,286ppm.

With regard to Lead, how is it that one seat had no detectable lead, yet another seat tested on the same day with the same fabric had 463ppm?

BRITAX Car Seat

(with Onyx fabric)

Testing Date

Bromine

(in seat fabric)

Lead

(in seat fabric)

Companion

1/1/08

44,528ppm

96ppm

Marathon

1/1/08

1401ppm

0ppm

Regent

1/1/08

69,985ppm

208ppm

Roundabout

1/1/08

76,286ppm

463ppm

Parkway SG

2/14/11

178ppm

0ppm

Advocate 70 CS

2/17/11

54ppm

0ppm

Here is another example of discrepant results, this time with Britax seats having the Cowmooflage fabric

BRITAX Car Seat (with Cowmooflage fabric) Testing Date Bromine (in seat fabric)
Marathon 1/1/08 0ppm
Roundabout 1/1/08 0ppm
Advocate 70 CS 2/17/11 53ppm
Chaperone 2/17/11 158ppm

One other problem with using XRF for bromine detection was highlighted in this study which found that there were some instances of false positives of bromine in polyurethane foam when using the XRF.

We’ll take another manufacturer to highlight further discrepant results in HealthyStuff.org’s testing.  Chicco makes the Key Fit 30 infant seat.  All Key Fit 30’s are made of the SAME plastic shell, use the SAME plastic chest clip – and only differ in the fabrics used for the cover.  Therefore, one would expect different results in the seat (i.e. the fabric) but the same results in the base (plastic) and clip.  However, this is not what we see… and yet HealthyStuff.org does not explain how this discrepancy is possible.

The Car Seat Lady has two deas on how to explain this discrepancy:
1. There are flaws in the testing and/or the machine used in the testing
2. The companies who manufacture the clips and the base are putting varying amounts of bromine & lead into their products – which would mean that the rankings HealthyStuff.org assigned do not apply to all Key Fit 30’s with a given fabric, but rather just to that one specific seat that was tested.
3.  The upper and lower end of the results are within the margin of error of the XRF machine – which would discredit the entire report.  Nowhere does HealthyStuff.org state the margin of error of the XRF machine, they only state the LOD (limits of detection).

Chicco Key Fit 30

(Fabric name)

Date Tested

Lead in Base

Bromine in Base

Bromine in Clip

Adventure

1/31/11

0ppm

0ppm

43ppm

Adventure

2/17/11

10ppm

16ppm

233ppm

Cubes

2/14/11

0ppm

0ppm

0ppm

Extreme

2/14/11

0ppm

0ppm

56ppm

Fuego

2/17/11

9ppm

45ppm

39ppm

Limonata

2/14/11

0ppm

0ppm

0ppm

Race

2/17/11

10ppm

11ppm

46ppm

Romantic

2/17/11

0ppm

7ppm

54ppm

Comments
9 Responses to “Chemicals In Your Child’s Car Seat”
  1. Mike Donohoe says:

    As usual, you have outdone yourself in aiding CPS techs and instructors. Your first paragraph says it all. Motor vehicle crashes can produce fires and the fire/flame retardants could save a child.

  2. I wrote my own article on the same topic that was published today: http://thestir.cafemom.com/toddler/124120/your_kids_car_seat_might

    I completely agree with you. This study was not done accurately, thoroughly, and frankly, I find it was incredibly irresponsible of them to release this information, especially without having even taken into consideration whether or not the presence of the chemicals even posed a health risk… or mentioning that fireproof mattresses would pose MUCH more of a risk, since a child spends more more time with their face flat against it.

    I just hope people don’t make rash decisions and use worse car seat practices as a result of this “study.”

    • kring says:

      I wouldn’t say that this is INCREDIBLY irresponsible. I think it makes parents aware of the fact that there are chemicals lurking in things that they hadn’t considered before. Small maybe not perfect studies are usually done first. Then places with more funding are better able to create a valid test.
      Personally,I would say that it is possible that it isn’t necessarily the flame retardants that are giving the reading….possibly something else during the manufacturing process. How many facilities produce these car seats? Are the different style of the same pattern manufactured from the same facility and process? If you think about just how shoes are made, some facilities under the same brand even make different sizes at different places. I could think of a thousand different reasons to explain the discrepancy. What is important, is that more people are aware that it’s just what we ingest and play with that may contain chemicals–I sure wash my car seat covers often (luckily my Britax style is easy to wash). So maybe it was premature to release these possibly misleading results, but they picked out some very popular brands and gave us information- that I do not find irresponsible. It would be irresponsible of us to ignore it. I do not know what “worse car seat practices” people would start doing. There is virtually nothing can be changed at the moment about what we do. Some people wash their covers-some people buy new ones(not smart always but still a fact). I doubt anyone is going to stop putting their kids in seats altogether. Besides, this may cause some people to start thinking about what is in all the upholstery in their vehicle, which is much more vast.

  3. Alex says:

    Thanks so much for putting this together. Really informative. The HealthyStuff site was leaving me with more questions than answers.

  4. kring says:

    Very glad to hear about this. This puts a lot of questions in my head about carseats and (especially the one I own listed on the chart above) what can be done. I think it’s important to get the information out there so maybe someone else can do more testing. It’s a good start.

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  1. […] to do your research! For more perspectives consider visiting The Car Seat Lady’s blog – she is a pediatrician and child passenger safety guru. Another good resource is the […]

  2. […] wondering what they should do. As I often do when stuck in a car seat conundrum, I checked out The Car Seat Lady. Here’s what she had to say: As a pediatrician, I worry about the chemicals our children are […]



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