Ask Chemist Mom: Could Chemicals in Child Car Seats Be Bad for Children?

Family Travel on 04.11.11
Contributor bio

Photo: Debs (ò͜  ó)  

First, let's be completely clear: there are no chemicals in your child's car seat that are more hazardous than the risk of a traffic accident without the carefully engineered protection that seat offers to the most precious thing in your world. No matter what car seat you have or can afford, use it. But with that said: parents are right to be concerned.

So what is the deal with chemicals in car seats?

The main concerns with car seats relate to the cushioning foams and the fabric covers. The fabric may come directly into contact with your child. Both fabrics and foams pose a risk of off-gassing (releasing volatile air pollutants) or letting loose dust particles full of chemicals that can puff out of the seat every time a child moves.

A key culprit is flame retardants. Preventing the ignition and spread of fires saves lives and saves many from the trauma of burn injuries. But these benefits are starting to look out of balance, as flame retardants have been increasingly banned or scrutinized for affecting fertility, threatening neurological development, causing cancer, or causing harm in breastfed babies - even for killing sofa-lounging cats!

The fact that these chemicals are being found in human breast milk, much less in animals from the US, accross Europe to Asia, and even in the Arctic, raises the level of concern even further. Reducing exposure has value, as your child will certainly continue to accumulate these chemicals throughout their lifespan before we succeed to remove them from all global commerce and our environment.

Many reports on the web suggest that urethane foams in child seats may release formaldehyde - a potential carcinogen, skin sensitizer, and toxic chemical. It can cause teary eyes, irritation of the nose and throat, and even asthma attacks in very sensitive people. Formaldehyde is known to be released as a volatile component of treatments intended to keep fabrics wrinkle free. But formaldehyde is not given off by the type of foams used in child car seats; this is a misunderstanding probably related to concerns about other types of urethane foams used mostly in building construction.

The chemical of concern in molded urethane foams, like those found in car seats, is methylene chloride. Methylene chloride may be used as an auxiliary blowing agent to create a softer molded foam. Molecules of these chemicals become trapped in the foamy cells, and are released over time - mostly during "curing" at the manufacturing site, but later releasing smaller amounts that have been associated with deterioration of indoor air quality.

The Good News: Hazardous Chemical Use Stopped

Flame retardants are used both in the foams and the fabrics in child car seats. Brominated flame retardants known as PBDEs are highly persistent in the environment. PentaBDE, which has been commonly used in urethane foam applications, is suspected of causing harm in breastfed babies, which suggests that exposure by routes other than breast milk may also harm a growing child. A close cousin, OctaBDE, is a known reproductive toxin. And the jury is still out on decaBDE, which has been cleared on charges of carcinogenic or reproductive activity, but is still under investigation on the potential for neurological harm.  

The PBDE flame retardants in urethane foam were voluntarily phased out between 2004 and 2007, according to the polyurethane foam association and the US EPA has instituted a rule requiring they be notified of any new uses of the chemicals. Europe has banned penta- and octa- variants of PBDE in all articles imported into the EU. The European Commission has asked for more studies of deca-BDE, but has not yet banned the substance.

Additionally, under pressure from the EPA for the amounts of hazardous air pollutants released by the urethane foam industry, U.S.-based manufacturers of urethane foams ceased using methylene chloride as a blowing agent.

So it's all cool now, car seats get a clean bill of health? Hold on, not so fast...

Clouds on the Horizon: Substitute Flame Retardants

Every time a chemical is deemed too hazardous, a substitute is sought. The problem is: heaps of data accumulated from years of study of the old chemical prove its hazards. The new chemical has little data. Is it less hazardous? Under current chemical control policies, we will find out after it is in products we buy.

Some companies have turned to a class of flame retardants called organophosphates, which come in two flavors: with and without chlorine. Studies of the chlorine-free variant, TPP, have found little to be concerned about as long as the TPP was very pure (not contaminated with leftovers from the coal-tars from which it is derived). TPP is often used, and studied, in products that have a mixture of chlorinated and non-chlorinated organophosphates. I am going to go out on a limb here, and guess that effects like reduced semen quality found in studies of organophosphates in house dusts are related to the chlorinated variety. Which means that analyses showing total bromine and chlorine are low in a product for children should still give parents a good feeling that toxins are under control.

As manufacturers realized that one substitute of choice, TCEP, was grey listed due to concern about impaired fertility and carcinogenicity, regulatory agencies found an uptick in the quantities of other substitutes such as TCPP and TDCPP. But evidence that TDCPP harms neurological development should come as no big surprise since the chemical looks a lot like organophosphate pesticides designed to kill by impairing neurological function. Remember, if you are wondering whether companies know what "sustainability" means, that there are no perfect solutions, and the law requires flame retardant use.

Other flame retardant manufacturers are sticking by Bromine. As a larger atom, most brominated organics are less toxic to mammals than their chlorinated equivalents. We were surprised to find a major pentaBDE replacement, Firemaster 550, classified as suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child and sensitizing (causing allergies) by the company that manufactures it. Components of Firemaster 550, which is toxic to aquatic life, have already been found in the arctic as well. We praise the manufacturer of Firemaster 550 for being honest about their evaluation of their product's hazards. This evaluation does apply to the product in the liquid state, before it is applied and processed into a product -- which may limit health effects compared to the industrial flame retardant mixture.

What can you do?

Stay tuned. Next week we will give new parents some suggestions on how to find the best car safety seat for their child.

Glossary of Chemical Alphabet Soup:

PBDEs: Penta-, Octa-, or Deca-bromodipheylether

Penta-BDE: pentabromodipheylether

OctaBDE: octabromodipheylether

deca-BDE : deca bromodipheylether

TPP: triphenyl phosphate (115-86-6)

TCEP: Tris-(2-chloroethyl)phosphate

TCPP: tris(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate

TDCPP: tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate

Top Articles on Chemicals and Your Child:

How Can I Find a Car Safety Seat That Won't Harm My Child with Chemicals?

FDA Declares Food Dyes Safe for Kids. But How Safe Are They?

Ask the Chemist Mom: What is the Best Lip Gloss or Chapstick for my Toddler?

6 Frightening Signs Chemicals are Affecting Your Child