Majority of Car Seats Contain Toxic Flame Retardants

CC BY 2.0. Bradley Gordon

Researchers are worried about the effect on child development – but shouldn't we be more worried about the cars themselves?

Car seats harbor a hidden danger that many parents may not realize. Most seats are made with fire retardant chemicals, in order to meet flammability guidelines laid out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but there are some significant problems with this.

First and foremost, these chemicals are known to be highly toxic to children. They disrupt hormonal, developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune system function. The Ecology Center, which conducts an annual study on the presence of chemicals in car seats, said in a press release,

"Exposures to toxic flame retardants have been associated with an array of negative health effects including reduced IQ, developmental delays, autism, hormone disruption, reproductive harm, obesity and cancer."

When children use the car seats, they inhale the off-gassing chemicals. These chemicals enter their bodies and accumulate, with potential for long-term health repercussions.

Second, the guidelines have not been updated since the 1970s, when they were originally implemented, and many experts suggest that the flame standard for vehicles (FMVSS 302) is not even relevant to real-life fire scenarios in cars. Despite this, "the government has never fully evaluated the effectiveness of the flammability standard for children’s car seats."

The Ecology Center's study for 2018 reveals just how prevalent these chemicals are. Researchers analyzed 18 common car seats manufactured no earlier than 2017. They found that 80 percent (15 seats) contained hazardous flame retardant chemical additives and 50 percent (9) likely contained hazardous PFAS (per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) chemicals on the fabric. A new test detected fluorinated chemicals in 50 percent of seats, which the researchers said are likely added by manufacturers for stain resistance. (See full list here.)

Graham Peaslee, researcher and professor of Experimental Nuclear Physics at the University of Notre Dame, which conducted these tests, said,

“The entire class of PFAS chemicals are very persistent in the environment... Not only are children in close contact with these seat fabrics when they are young, but also when these seat covers are discarded. One hundred percent of these PFASs are going to be released into our environment and could end up in drinking water later.”

The good news is that there are three car seats that do not contain any fire retardants. These are Clek Fllo Convertible Mammoth, Nuna Pipa Lite Infant Fog, and UPPAbaby MESA Infant Jordan. Among the worst are Graco, Evenflo, Eddie Bauer, and Chicco. (Ironically Clek, Nuna, and UPPAbaby all appear on the moderate to high hazard list with other models, so they're clearly still using toxic chemicals in production.)

I understand that this is a useful study – I'm writing about it after all – but I can't help wondering why we're fussing about the toxicity of car seats when cars themselves are cancer machines. They're also the leading cause of death for children in the United States. Restraint devices play a role in improving safety, so they're an absolute must if you are driving in a vehicle, but what if we challenged the bigger picture here? Flame retardants in car seat fabrics aren't the problem. The dangerous, poison-spewing vehicles that we use to transport our children are.

Do your kid a real favor by keeping them out of cars if you're serious about their wellbeing! Walk, bike, ride transit, and you'd do far more for their health than if you invested in a pricey Scandi-sounding car seat to install inside your high-speed metal death machine.

But if you feel so inclined, here's a petition to sign, asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to update its flammability standards.