Parenting strategy for facing toxic flame retardant chemicals

Toxic flame retardant chemicals, says a new study, are more prevalent than thought – even in couches. Parenting through the worry, one mom reasons through the set of concerns about kid safety that can inundate new parents starting with the crib bumpers and strollers and moving on to toys and ... now couches.

A new study showing the ubiquity of toxic flame retardant chemicals can make even the sofa suspect as parents try to reason through child safety.

I have already bid a sad farewell to the Bumbo chair and have steeled myself to resist all of those adorable crib bumpers for sale in every kids catalog.

I have resolved that Buckeyballs, no matter how super cool, will not make an appearance in my home for the next two decades.

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And despite a few days of frantic, somewhat obsessive Internet research on the relative dangers of bassinets and cradles (do you know that there are no federal safety standards for those items???), I thought that I was pretty much through my pre-baby anxiety stage.

After all, I did my time during those months before Baby M arrived. (Do not ask me about the evils of pressed particle board. At least not around my poor husband, who I’m sure has already heard enough.) The Web is wonderful in many ways, but can be dangerous in the third trimester.

But then came more news this week about flame retardants.

It is not just sharp objects, stroller recalls and the dangers of plastic sippy-cups that should plague my mind and torture my Google, it turns out. Now, it appears, I must also fear my couch. 

And Baby M’s crib blankets.

Although concerns about flame retardant chemicals have been around for decades, a study released today in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology” outlines how widespread the chemicals have become in furniture (researchers found flame retardant in 85 percent of couches studied) and how manufacturers have basically swapped banned flame retardants for another, similar compound. 

Other reports have pointed out that chemicals thought to be off the market are still showing up in everything from baby blankets to breast milk, and at least one chemical manufacturer has said that it will stop making one flame retardant – a substance known as “chlorniated tris” – for use in furniture and children’s products as of Jan. 1.  (This, mind you, after many companies agreed to voluntarily remove this very same product from children’s pajamas.... in the 1970s.)

Meanwhile, there is a growing collection of studies, including one published a couple of weeks ago in the journal “Environmental Health Perspectives,” connecting high levels of the chemicals in children's blood to a range of health problems.

The background of all of this is fascinating. The Chicago Tribune published an investigative series in May that looked at the prevalence of the toxins in American homes (U.S. babies have the highest recorded levels of flame retardants in their systems among infants anywhere in the world) as well as some of the intrigue that led to their proliferation.

Reporters found that Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers waged what they called “deceptive campaigns” to spread use of the chemicals, including a phony consumer watchdog group that spread the fear of fire and tried to shift the blame for furniture blazes off of cigarettes and onto foam and fabric. The journalists determined that flame retardants don’t work as portrayed, and found that regulators have done little to assess their health risks.


Take that, trampolines.

For their part, I should also mention, chemical companies say there is no proven health danger from flame retardants, and say that the chemicals are better than immediately combustible crib mattresses. Or other furniture items.

Still, according to news reports, there appears to be a growing backlash against the widespread use of flame retardants. (One of the particularly creepy aspects of this, advocates say, is that because of flammability standards, particularly those passed in California, there’s hardly any way to get upholstered furniture, or kids’ pajamas, that do not have the chemicals.) Politicians and consumer groups are starting to demand some answers – and changes.

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So at least there's something that can ease my worries. This growing debate, wherever one might stand on the topic, seems to be a hopeful sign that a lot of people do care about kids’ wellbeing.

I’ll be following what happens.  And in the meantime, I will try to limit the Google.

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