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

Family Travel on 04.18.11
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Photo credit: Adam Gault/Getty Images

Previously, we looked at whether chemicals in your child's car safety seat could cause harm to your child. We learned that some of the hazardous chemicals which have grabbed headlines, like the flame retardant pentaBDE and the foam blowing agent methylene chloride, have been eliminated from use in applications like car seats. But we also learned that we are not out of the woods yet: these chemical substitutions only launch us into round two of "could this (new) chemical be harming my child?"

What can you do?

Chemist Mom often says "buy vintage," because older products have had time to offgas and puff out most of the volatile and dust-born chemicals - but not in the case of safety gear. There are three reasons to buy new in the case of safety equipment:

  1. Used or older products may be weakened by previous impacts or accidents, with damage that may not even be visible;
  2. New equipment meets the newest standards; and
  3. Most safety equipment has a lifespan.

What you also cannot do is find a clear label indicating the chemicals used in the new car seat you wish to buy. And you cannot find a law that makes you feel satisfied that someone else is looking out for your child's safety from chemicals in a car seat, unlike the laws and standards for car seat performance to protect your child in the case of an accident.

You are left to curse the darkness, and search product specifications endlessly, coming up with little more information than the unsettling headlines that your baby may be in danger from a car seat. At what point do you have to pitch in with a few other mothers and have a couple of bake sales, hoping to raise the $30,000 you need for an X-Ray Fluorescence Analyzer of your own?

Information to the Rescue

There are two places to turn to help you make the best purchasing decision: certifications and independent test reports.  We share with you here the two best options we found in researching this question.

  • The Oeko-Tex 100 textile certification assures consumers that manufacturers have tested and certified their products free of, or below strict limits for, over a hundred suspect chemicals. This includes 7 harmful volatiles such as formaldehyde, and two categories intended as a catch-all for any other harmful chemicals that could get into your child's sitting and breathing space. Car seats with the Oeko-Tex 100 certification are guaranteed not to contain polybrominated biphenyls (PBB), Tri-(2,3-dibromopropyl)-phosphate (TRIS), Tris-(aziridinyl)-phosphinoxide (TEPA), Penta-, Octa-, or Deca- bromodipheylether (PBDEs), Hexabromocyclodecane (HBCDD), Short chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCP), nor Tris-(2-chloroethyl)phosphate (TCEP).
  • Healthy is a good source for car seat testing data. Healthy Stuff bought or borrowed an XRF analyzer and did some of the testing for you. This testing does not give much information about specific hazardous chemicals, but can help you avoid broad categories of chemicals such as boron-rich flame retardants. (Update: Healthy Stuff releases 2011 report on best and worst car seats)

So What is the Best Car Seat?

Well, we don't want to endorse a particular product here, and the market is constantly changing. Often, the manufacturer that fared worst in independent testing will quickly turn around to save their reputations -- and may be the best option just a year or two after you saw their name dragged through the dirt.

But we would start by googling Oeko-Tex. We found only one North American child safety seat company claiming Oeko-Tex certifications. If other companies see parents voting with their dollars, though, this list could grow. The Orbit Baby Infant Car Seat and Car Seat Base G2 has Oeko-Tex - 100 certification for both the seat fabric and foam. The Orbit Baby Toddler Car Seat uses certified fabrics.

Over at Healthy Stuff dot Org, you can find a larger range of manufacturers whose products have scored in the low hazard level for a set of key indicators of chemicals. Just select the category of car seat you are looking for and then click on a product that interests you. A green, yellow, or red badge gives a quick visual clue. It is possible to get a list organized by level of concern, but this includes all types of products tested.

The most recent test data is now becoming a bit outdated, but searching the products with no detected chemicals, we came across one company that impressed us with a praiseworthy commitment to prioritize non-toxic substitutes for flame retardants known to be harmful. Sunshine Kids claims their substitute is trade secret, but it is almost certainly based on new developments for the application of halogen-free organophosphate flame retardants, like TPP, in urethane foams. We like to see consumers vote with their dollars to support such efforts, which often are more costly. (That being said, we hope a company as committed as Sunshine Kids is also clever enough to know that TPP is derived from coal-tars and must be refined to a high purity to avoid some risks of harmful contaminants. But compared to the test results of most flame retardants, this seems a promising direction). Two other companies score a mention for seats with none of the target chemicals detected: the Radian 65 and the Monterey Expandable Booster.

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