The Ecology Center has tested child car seats periodically for ten years, tracking changes in chemical additives. Car seats are a required product in which babies and children typically spend hours per day. The flame retardant (FR) chemicals historically used in car seats are known to be carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and developmental toxicants. Exposure occurs through contamination of air and dust. Safer alternatives are available, and while our testing has shown trends away from the worst chemicals, companies can do much better.
In fact, one company has answered our longtime call. Uppababy unveiled a new seat for 2017 specially designed to contain no added FRs. To our knowledge, the MESA Henry will be the first flame retardant-free car seat on the market, and its story and test results are included as a sidebar in this report.
In this study, we analyzed flame retardants and other chemicals in fifteen infant and toddler car seats purchased in 2016, including two from the United Kingdom. The brands are BabyTrend, Britax, Chicco, Clek, Cosco, Diono, Evenflo, Graco (two models), Joie, Maxi-Cosi, Nuna, Orbit, Recaro, and Safety 1st. The seats represent a broad price range and about half were brands also tested by our team in 2014.
Three different analytical techniques were used: X-ray fluorescence, infrared spectroscopy, and gas chromatography with mass spectrometry.
It is to be understood throughout this report that 1) vehicle interiors are chemically flame-retarded to begin with and 2) that car seats provide vital crash protection, and children should always ride in a properly installed seat, regardless of chemical hazard.
- Flame retardants were found in all 15 car seats, and for the first time were found to be in widespread use in the fabrics of car seats.
- Most car seats still contain brominated flame retardants. Many companies are also using phosphorus-based flame retardants, including some not previously known to be used in car seats.
- In 2017 a car seat marketed as free of flame retardants will be on the market produced by UPPAbaby. Our testing confirmed their claim.
- Manufacturers have stopped using some flame retardants with known hazards, but the effects of the many of the substitutes are unknown.
Change is happening, yet all seats still contained flame retardant chemicals
Our study shows that the car seat industry continues to change its approach to meeting flammability standards.
The industry continues to shift away from halogenated FRs and to choose materials that allow flammability standards to be met without hazardous chemicals.
Currently, however, chemical flame retardants are still in widespread use in car seats. Highlights of the report:
- For the first time no car seat contained chlorinated tris or other related FRs. This is a notable improvement compared to models from 2014, when the carcinogen chlorinated tris was found in 3 of 15 seats. Two of those brands, BabyTrend and Orbit, were retested for this report.
- We detected FRs in all tested car seats (not including UPPAbaby), including the two seats purchased in England, Graco Milestone and Joie Stages.
- Also for the first time since we started testing in 2006, no lead was detected in any seats. No other hazardous metals such as arsenic were detected, either, with the exception of antimony, which is likely present as a flame retardant synergist.
- Unfortunately, brominated FRs remain in frequent use, this year detected in 13 of the 15 seats (87%). This is concerning, as brominated chemicals are typically persistent, bioaccumulative, and often toxic.
- Two seats did not contain any brominated FRs (Maxi Cosi and Britax) and two seats contained brominated chemicals only in smaller components such as warning labels or Velcro, not in fabrics or foams (Clek and Orbit).
- Phosphorus-based, halogen-free FRs were detected in all 15 seats. Eliminating halogens is important, but even halogen-free FRs must be thoroughly studied for health hazards. Some of the phosphorus FRs found in 2016 seats may pose a lower hazard, but we found health-related data to be lacking.
Materials matter: Both fabrics and foams are frequently treated with flame retardants
To our knowledge, this study represents the most detailed assessment to date of different material in car seats. Our analysis illustrates the importance of studying components other than polyurethane foams in upholstered products.
- Fabrics have been studied a lot less than foams, so this year we tested over 160 fabric samples and found nearly one-third (32%) contained at least one FR.
- A quarter (25%) of fabric samples contained a brominated FR.
- 16% of fabric samples contained phosphorus flame retardants (PFRs), including cyclic phosphonate esters and possibly ammonium polyphosphate. Although our study is the first, to our knowledge, to detect these FRs in car seat fabrics, these FRs have been available for many years. They are marketed as safer alternatives.
- 73% of car seats had polyurethane foam containing phosphorus-based flame retardants. This likely represents an increase in the use of PFRs, as 50% of seats in 2014 contained PFRs. Of PFRs found in polyurethane foam, the majority were tris(butoxyethyl)phosphate, a possibly safer alternative than triphenyl phosphate.
- Usage of triphenyl phosphate in the polyurethane foams of car seats appeared to decline compared to 2014.
- With one exception (part of a plastic frame), hard plastic parts and belt straps did not contain detectable FRs.
- Brominated FRs were found almost exclusively in polyester textiles (26%) and in rigid foams (43%), not in soft polyurethane foam. This finding is similar to the 2014 findings. Specific BFRs detected were 1) in fabrics: brominated styrenes, tris(bromopropyl) isocyanurates, and unidentified BFR; and 2) in polystyrene foam: brominated cyclododecanes (likely hexabromocyclododecane).
Flame-retardant free car seats are within reach
As long as car seats are subject to the federal flame standard for cars, the best approach is to redesign car seats so that hazardous chemicals are not necessary.
Our studies have shown manufacturers decreasing the use of chlorinated and brominated FRs in foams and increasing the use of halogen-free FRs. This is a step in the right direction. However, brominated FRs remain frequently used in car seat fabrics, and some of the halogen-free FRs such as triaryl phosphates pose health concerns as well. We now encourage companies to follow UPPAbaby’s lead by making a few material changes, such as using naturally fire-resistant wool, to avoid adding FRs.
Flammability regulations should be modified
While car seats can be designed to pass the flame test without chemical additives, this approach costs more money. Affordable car seats should not come with a chemical exposure cost.
Policy makers should consider exempting child car seats from the federal flammability standard FMVSS 302. Despite 44 years of this U.S. regulation, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can provide no evidence suggesting that the rule protects children in vehicle fires. FMVSS 302 has resulted in car seat makers adding thousands of pounds of chemical flame retardants to products that infants and children are in close contact with every day.
PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS SHOULD ALWAYS PROPERLY INSTALL AND USE A CAR SEAT appropriate for a child’s age and size, regardless of concerns about chemical hazards in the seat. This applies to older children as well as infants. Vehicle child restraint systems are essential for protecting children during car accidents. Between 1975 and 2014, as car seat usage skyrocketed, the number of infants dying in vehicle crashes dropped by 80%. The decline in deaths of children ages 1-3 was 73%, and ages 4-8 was 53%.
Parents should also be aware that the inside parts of a car, including the built-in seats, contain significant flame retardant additives.