The Toxins in Baby Products (and Almost Everywhere Else)

Carcinogenic flame retardants were supposed to be gone by now, but, like endocrine-disrupting plasticizers, they persist

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A dangerous flame retardant known as "Tris" has reappeared in products designed for babies and young children, among them car seats, changing table pads, portable crib mattresses, high chair seats, and nursing pillows. (Tris, once used in children's sleepwear, was removed from these products in the 1970s, after it was identified as a carcinogen and a mutagen, a compound that causes genetic mutation.) Also found in these products, according to the same recent study, which appeared in Environmental Science & Technology, is another flame retardant, pentaBDE. This compound was banned in Europe in 2004, when its U.S. manufacturers voluntarily discontinued it after it was found to be environmentally persistent, bioaccumulative, and to adversely affect thyroid function and neurological development.

The study also identified new compounds whose ingredients include some of the older toxic substances—and it found all of these and other flame retardants in 80 percent of the 101 infant and children's products tested. That these chemicals, associated with adverse health impacts including cancer and endocrine disruption, are so widespread raises serious questions about the U.S. system of chemicals management and how we evaluate product safety.

With the potential health hazards of widely used synthetic chemicals coming under increasing scrutiny, and with a growing call from medical and scientific professionals for policies that protect children from such hazards, the question of what takes the place of a threatening chemical has become increasingly important. It also prompts questions about whether it is better to substitute another chemical for the one posing problems or to redesign a product so it can achieve its desired performance, perhaps without such chemicals.

Together these flame retardants and plasticizers raise profound questions about how we think about designing new materials and the wisdom of regulating chemicals one at a time.

The brominated and chlorinated flame retardants (BFRs and CFRs) found in these children's products offer one cautionary example. Another group of chemicals known as phthalates, used to increase the flexibility of one of the world's most widely used plastics, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), offers another. Together, these compounds account for the vast majority of all plastics additives used worldwide.

In the case of the flame retardants used in upholstery foams, carpet backings, textiles, and hard plastic appliances and other products since the 1970s, new compounds introduced to replace the hazardous ones have in fact resembled their predecessors. The result, despite "early warnings and periodic reminders about the problematic properties of these chemicals" is a "continuing pattern of unfortunate substitution," wrote Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, and Ake Bergman, professor of environmental chemistry at Stockholm University, in Environmental Health Perspectives in October. They were introducing a statement of concern about BFRs and CFRs signed by nearly 150 scientists from 22 countries.

While cushions and electronics can function without flame retardants, PVC cannot work without plasticizers. Phthalates—oily, colorless liquids based on benzene chemistry—have been the plasticizers of choice since PVC was commercialized in the early 20th century. Without phthalates, PVC would be brittle and of limited use. In some bendable PVC products, phthalates can make up as much as 40 to 50 percent of the finished plastic—and in 2008, nearly 540 billion pounds of PVC were produced worldwide.

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Elizabeth Grossman's work has appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, The Pump Handle, and other publications. Her books include Chasing Molecules and High Tech Trash.

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