SAN FRANCISCO -- Eighty percent of baby products - from nursing pillows to car seats and strollers - studied by researchers contain chemical flame retardants that are either untested or known to be toxic, according to a report being released today.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, focused on flame retardants because the chemicals have been linked to increased risks for thyroid impairment, reproductive problems, endocrine disruption, cancer and other health issues. Some of the chemicals have been banned or voluntarily removed from some products but not others.
"New parents would be horrified to learn some of their baby shower presents contain the same chemical that was removed from baby pajamas in the '70s," said Arlene Blum, founder of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley and an author of the report.
For example, the federal government banned a chemical known as brominated tris from children's pajamas in 1977 after it was found to cause cancer in laboratory animals. A close relative of the chemical, chlorinated tris, was substituted and then voluntarily removed by manufacturers from the pajama products.
But in 1975, California passed the nation's only flammability laws for furniture, and chlorinated tris was among many chemicals to emerge to meet the requirements and was found in many of the products tested for the study.
100 foam samples
Researchers tested more than 100 foam samples from products sent by volunteers in California and 10 other states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. The products, which were not identified by brand name, included baby carriers, changing pads, portable cribs, rocking chairs and other items.
Eighty samples contained a flame retardant additive that was either associated with adverse health effects or had not yet been studied.
"The majority of baby products tested in this study contain flame retardant chemicals with names that resemble alphabet soup. But unlike soup, they aren't good for you," said Dr. Sarah Janssen, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. "Some of these chemicals have been linked to a lowered IQ, reproductive problems, hormone disruption and cancer.
"If this wasn't concerning enough, only a small number of flame retardants have undergone adequate testing."
The most common flame retardant detected in the samples was chlorinated tris, which was found in more than a third of the products. Though the chemical was removed from children's pajamas more than 30 years ago, it persists in other products, including furniture, carpet padding and baby products.
Another once-common flame retardant, pentaBDE, was found in only five products, probably a result of a decision by manufacturers to stop making the chemical in the United States in 2004 because of health and environmental concerns.
Blum said many of the newer products contained chlorinated tris, which she said is a probable human carcinogen.
"Is this an improvement?" she asked.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, said that new flame retardants being developed today undergo extensive testing by manufacturers and that the safety data are scrutinized by government agencies in the United States and abroad.
"This study attempts to examine the existence of certain flame retardants in a small sampling of children's products; it does not address exposure or risk," the group said in a statement. "We will continue to work with government agencies and the scientific community to meet our dual objectives - using the safest possible chemistry to protect families by preventing fires from starting and limiting the spread of fires once ignited."
Ami Zota, a postdoctoral fellow in UCSF's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment who was not involved in the study, said the results raise questions about the safety of products used by mothers and children in the early stages of development.
"These chemicals are not being tested in a thorough manner for reproductive and developmental health effects before they're used in the marketplace," she said.
Leno seeks options
A bill by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that have would allowed nontoxic flame retardants in furniture as an alternative to current retardants failed this month in a Senate committee.
Mary Brune, an Alameda mother of two, said she is frustrated by the lack of options to buy nontoxic products.
Brune, who founded Making Our Milk Safe, a grassroots mothers' organization whose work is aimed at eliminating toxins from breast milk, participated in a study four years ago that found disturbingly high levels of a flame retardant known as PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, in people, including her daughter.
Brune said she supports fire safety, but doesn't want to subject her children to dangerous chemicals.
"I can't fathom that sitting in a glider, rocking my daughter or son and nursing them on a pillow poses some imminent fire danger," she said. "This should be something we have a choice about."
An abstract of the study and a link to the article "Identification of Flame Retardants in Polyurethane Foam Collected from Baby Products" is available at www.greensciencepolicy.org.
Tips to reduce chemical exposure
Here are some suggestions to reduce the toxic chemicals in your home:
Foam: Check products that contain polyurethane foam for a label stating they meet Technical Bulletin 117, the California flammability standard. Products with the label are likely to contain toxic or untested flame retardants.
Fire retardants: Consider buying baby products that contain polyester, down, wool, cotton and other materials unlikely to contain added fire retardants.
Clean well: Wash your hands frequently, vacuum often and use a wet mop to reduce dust that may contain toxic chemicals.
Source: Green Science Policy Institute.