WASHINGTON (CBS SF) -- Months after KPIX 5 began investigating hazardous chemicals in children's car seats, lawmakers on Thursday finally had the chance to put regulators on the hot seat on Capitol Hill.
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"There have been health and safety concerns raised regarding the flammability standards for children's car seats," Senator Kelly Ayotte (NH-R) said, addressing Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Foxx oversees the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.
Thursday's Senate Commerce Hearing was the first opportunity lawmakers have had to publicly question federal regulators about a 44-year-old flammability regulation that critics say needlessly exposes kids to concerning – and, in some cases, even cancer-causing -- flame retardants in car seats.
However, biomonitoring studies have long demonstrated that flame retardants from various consumer products are found at high levels in children.
"The flammability standard aims to afford adequate time for caregivers to help children escape a vehicle in the event of a fire," Transportation Secretary Foxx said, reading from a prepared statement that was nearly word-for-word the same statement NHTSA provided to KPIX 5 months ago.
However, since then, the KPIX 5 investigation has discredited many of the agency's assertions and called into question the relevancy of statistics cited by the agency. It has also revealed that NHTSA does not have any data to indicate that its 1972 standard provides any real-world fire safety benefit in child car seats. In fact, the agency admits it's never tested the effectiveness of the standard in car seats.
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When KPIX 5 commissioned tests, we found that car seat samples with flame retardants, that do meet the NHTSA standard, can perform worse than those that do not.
Instead of acknowledging a potential flaw, the Department of Transportation implied that car seat manufacturers are to blame for the proliferation of concerning chemicals in car seats. Foxx read, "NHTSA's safety standard for flammability currently does not require flame retardants."
However, NHTSA does require an open-flame test, which according to car seat manufactures, requires that they add flame retardants to the foam inside the car seats to pass.
As previously reported, fire scientists contend that the 44-year-old test, and flame retardants added to pass it, is irrelevant unless a fire is ignited by a one-inch flame, under the child and inside the car seat.
The test requires manufacturers apply a one-inch flame directly to a sample of foam from inside the car seat. Experts point out that a fire ignited anywhere else would be fueled by combustible materials and gasoline. As a result, they say the flames would be too large for the small-flame test to be relevant in a real-world fire. They also point out that it would be too late to save the child by the time flames reach the foam inside their car seat.
Car seat manufacturers have lobbied NHTSA for years to exempt car seats from the standard. Consumer advocates and fire scientists have urged the regulator to revise the required test, similar to California's newly-revised future flammability test. The new furniture standard can now be met with smolder-resistant fabrics or a barrier fabric between the foam and the fabric. Flame retardants are not needed.
Foxx did not reference petitions from manufacturers, consumer groups and scientists to revise the standard, but he did cite data from the U.S. Fire Administration and National Fire Protection Association stating that about 194,000 car fires occur annually, resulting in more than 200 deaths, about 20 of them children. This was similar to data cited by the chemical industry in defense of flame retardants in car seats.
However, it's important to note that those figures include all vehicle fires, including freight and construction vehicles and car fires that were intentionally set. Fire scientists say those fires are irrelevant as the federal flammability standard is only intended to slow the spread of a small flame that is first ignited in upholstered material.
According to additional data that KPIX 5 obtained from the National Fire Protection Association, only 3 percent of unintentional car fires begin in upholstered material, resulting in fewer than 3 deaths per year. The data does not indicate that those fires specifically impacted children and there is no known evidence that a car fire has ever been ignited inside a child's car seat.
Before the hearing, KPIX 5 provided committee members with data that clearly contradicted many of the assertions made by Secretary Foxx. However due to limited time, lawmakers did not ask follow up questions.
Thursday's hearing was intended to address a variety of transportation issues. However, Senator Kelly Ayotte requested a separate hearing to specifically discuss flame retardants in car seats. Additionally, Ayotte and Commerce Committee Chair, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), sent a joint letter to the NHTSA Administrator asking follow-up questions.
NOTE: Car seats in cars save lives. None of this information should be interpreted to imply otherwise. The safest place for a child in a moving vehicle is in a rear-facing car seat in the middle of the back seat.
This story has been updated with additional links following our on-going coverage of flame retardants in car seats.
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