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Issues Of The Environment: Ann Arbor-Based Ecology Center Works For Chemical-Free Car Seats

Car Seat

Car seats are designed to keep children safe inside moving vehicles, but toxic chemicals are used to keep them flame-retardant in the manufacturing process.  That is a danger in and of itself.  The Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center has been working with car seat companies to have the chemicals removed and is noting some progress as we head into 2020.  WEMU's David Fair gets the details in a conversation with the Ecology Center's green living resources director, Melissa Cooper Sargent.

Ecology Center Mini Car Seat Report Release December 2019

  • We rely on car seats to keep children safe.  Car seats are necessary safety products that all parents who drive have to use. A child may spend hours every week or even every day in a car seat.  Children can be exposed to toxic flame retardants through dust ingestion, inhalation, or skin absorption.
  • Children are more heavily exposed than adults to toxic flame retardant chemicals.  Their bodies and their immune systems are still developing. Pound for pound, they breathe more air than adults.  They put their hands and other objects in their mouths far more often than adults. 
  • Child and environmental health advocates have called for FR-free seats for over 10 years, asking car seat companies to implement design changes to eliminate flame retardants and other hazardous chemicals from children’s car seats.
  • Five innovative car seat companies have answered the call for FR-free car seats: Britax, Clek, Maxi-Cosi, Nuna, UPPAbaby.
    • Through material and design choices, Britax, Clek, Maxi-Cosi, Nuna, and UPPAbaby have developed children’s car seats that meet flammability standards without the use of chemicals. 
    • Manufacturers are using a range of approaches to achieve FR-free, including using fiber blends with wool, which is naturally fire retardant and changing the weave patterns in the yarn so there’s less air in the fabric and it’s more dense. 
    • We applaud the redesign approach that relies on design innovation rather than swapping out a chemical with known hazards for another chemical with unknown hazards.
    • Two companies feature seats with removable, washable covers to help avoid the need for stain repellent coatings, such as toxic PFAS.  Maxi-Cosi’s PureCosi Magellan 5-in-1’s seat cover is easily removable with velcro straps.  Britax’s entire SafeWash line has removable seat covers.
    • Britax, Clek, Maxi-Cosi, and Nuna each have 2 or more FR-free car seats available. 
    • There are a total of 16 FR-free seats on the market. FR-free car seats are now available for every age and stage of growth.
  • The number of companies with flame retardant free car seats on the market has increased 5-fold since 2017 when UPPAbaby released the FR-free MESA Henry.
  • Number of FR-free seats
    • 2016: 0
    • 2017: 1 (from 1 company)
    • 2018: 5 (from 3 companies)
    • 2019: 16 (from 5 companies)
  • Flame retardant-free seats are still expensive.  The Ecology Center challenges companies to make affordable seats without chemical flame retardants so that healthier seats are available to all infants and children.
  • Two of three new products we tested were flame retardant-free.
  • The Ecology Center continues to test children’s car seats.  In 2019, we tested 3 new products: Britax’s SafeWash FR-free seat cover, Maxi-Cosi’s PureCosi Magellan Max 5-in-1 convertible seat, and WAYB’s Pico car seat. 
  • The Ecology Center is still working with NHTSA and our federal representatives to try to get the flammability standard changed to make it easier for companies to make FR-free seats that are still safe. 

Healthy Stuff Car Seat Project

The Healthy Stuff project is fundamentally about helping companies to change their product designs to produce healthier products that do not contain toxic chemicals.  To create a healthier product, manufacturers use design to reduce or eliminate the impacts of hazardous chemicals throughout the lifecycle of a product.  Companies can implement a chemical policy to help them achieve chemical safety in their supply chain and across the lifecycle of their products.

A chemical policy outlines what types of chemicals will be avoided by a manufacturer and how that will be enacted.  The Ecology Center has created a model chemical policy and shared it with car seat manufacturers to use as a starting point.  A chemical policy can include information on how or why certain chemicals are added to the company’s Restricted Substances List (RSL).  It also can include a company’s RSL.

A good chemical policy is transparent (public), restricts chemicals of concern, and includes assessment strategies to find safer alternatives to harmful chemicals.  In order to fully optimize a product, like a child’s car seat, both the companies and the public need better data on chemical content and hazards.  A chemical policy can outline the strategies a company uses to gather data and chemical content from its suppliers.  A clear and transparent chemical policy will effectively convey this information to the public. 

Consumers desire transparency and disclosure from companies.  Disclosure helps educate consumers and ultimately changes the way products are designed.  

In August 2018, we invited twelve children’s car seat companies to complete our Children's Car Seat Corporate Chemical Policy Survey, the purpose of which was to evaluate their corporate chemical policies and practices.  This report, Making the Grade; How children's car seat manufacturers measure up on chemical policy and transparency, provides our assessments of their responses and scores to rank their responses.  The results of this survey do not represent an endorsement or third-party certification from the Ecology Center or its Healthy Stuff project.

In the survey, companies were asked a total of 22 questions regarding transparency, internal chemical policies, assessment of products, chemical advances, public policy advocacy, and (for extra credit) other environmental practices. Six out of twelve companies responded.  Scores varied in most categories. But in transparency, no company received a grade higher than a ‘D’ due to lack of public communication about chemicals and their use.  None of the companies have a public Restricted Substances List. Most do not have a public chemicals policy.  A few have a public statement on chemicals.

We celebrate the companies that are rethinking their designs on certain seats to avoid harmful chemicals.  Some companies are utilizing wool or high-density polyester to create seats that are flame-resistant without added chemicals.  Some are also avoiding stain-resistant chemical coatings on seats and making seat covers easily removable and washable.  We urge these companies and all companies to expand their achievements to all of their marketed seats and clearly communicate with the public about that process.

The process of creating and implementing this survey has generated positive dialogue with car seat companies about chemical policy and practice.  We are grateful to all of the companies and the people within those companies who took the time to complete the survey and have conversations with us. 

What are some of the potential health effects associated with flame retardants?

Although flame retardants can offer benefits when they are added to some products, a growing body of evidence shows that many of these chemicals are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans.  These include:

  • Endocrine and thyroid disruption
  • Impacts to the immune system
  • Reproductive toxicity
  • Cancer
  • Adverse effects on fetal and child development
  • Neurologic function

Who is most vulnerable?

Children may be particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of these chemicals, because their brain and other organs are still developing. Hand-to-mouth behavior and proximity to the floor increases the potential of children to be exposed to flame retardants. Researchers have found that children have higher concentrations of flame retardants in their bodies than adults.

Are there different types of flame retardants?

There are hundreds of different flame retardants.  They are often broken into categories based on chemical structure and properties.  In general, flame retardants are grouped based on whether they contain bromine, chlorine, phosphorus, nitrogen, metals, or boron.

Brominated flame retardants — Contain bromine and are the most abundantly used flame retardants. Used in many consumer goods, including electronics, furniture, building materials, etc. and have been linked to endocrine disruption among other effects.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s) —PBDEs do not chemically bind with the products to which they are added (furniture, electronics, etc.) so they easily release from these products and enter air and dust. PBDEs can lower birth weight/length of children, and impair neurological development.

Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) — Widely used to make computer circuit boards and electronics.  Also used in some textiles and paper, or as an additive in other flame retardants.

Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) — An additive primarily used in polystyrene foam building materials. The primary risk to humans is from leaching out of products and getting into indoor dust.  Low levels of HBCD have also been found in some food products.

Organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) — With the phasing out of PBDEs, some OPFRs have been identified as replacements.

NIEHS-supported researchers are also looking at the health effects of newer flame retardant alternatives that are being brought to market.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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