They said it couldn't be done, but one car seat company proved them wrong. The first-ever "naturally-flame-resistant car seat" is now on store shelves and UPPAbaby credits passionate parents for prompting the new design.
When the car seat manufacturer announced it was developing the first car seat without added flame retardants, some on social media were a little skeptical. After all, manufactures have long argued that they have to add retardants to the materials in car seats in order to pass the federal flammability test.
A Social Experiment
So, to answer their questions, KPIX tried something new. We invited viewers and social media followers to join our ConsumerWatch team as we researched the company's claims.
Facebook LIVE: Car Seat Combustion Demonstration
UPPAbaby agreed to allow us to ignite its new car seat to demonstrate how it passes the test without retardants while others cannot. Viewers participated in the demonstration at the Lawrence Berkeley National laboratory via Facebook LIVE and they later had the opportunity to interview UPPAbaby's co-founder, along with us, live on Facebook.
Facebook LIVE: Q & A With UPPAbaby Co-Founder
Crowd-Sourcing Passionate Parents
The collaboration between viewers and the consumer-investigative team marked the culmination of a year-long car seat flame retardant investigation that was driven, in part, by passionate parents who watched the reports on air and online.
Toxic Safety: Car Seat Flame Retardant Investigation
The investigation began with a blog post on my NewsMom blog after a 2015 Ecology Center study found concerning flame retardant chemicals in 75 percent of the car seats tested. That led to a KPIX consumer story about alleged false advertising which caught the attention of passionate parents nationwide.
Then, using the NewsMom blog and other relevant online communities, we mined social media to solicit car seat flame retardant test results from parents across the country. Combined with independent lab tests commissioned by KPIX, they revealed that that even the "greenest" car seat manufactures couldn't keep known cancer-causing retardants out of car seats despite advertised claims.
Car seat foam samples repeatedly tested positive for (TDCPP), a retardant that is listed by regulators as "known to cause cancer" and was removed from kids' pajamas in the '70s due to health concerns. It is now illegal to sell a product with those chemicals in California without a warning label.
The data collected from parents helped to further demonstrate a systemic issue while their questions and concerns helped to move the investigation forward.
Next, the investigation turned to biomonitoring to examine how the chemicals might impact children. Researchers note that flame retardants break down and migrate into dust, which kids inhale and ingest by touching their seat, then putting their hands in their mouth. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have found these chemicals inside children who are exposed to them.
Biomonitoing tests we commissioned for the KPIX investigation also revealed an apparent link between the chemical retardant in my child's car seat and the same chemical in her body. The levels of the flame retardant in my daughter's system dropped dramatically after removing just one variable from her environment - her car seat.
Finally, the investigation pivoted to examine the benefit of flame retardants in children's car seats, which are used to meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Flammability Standard. Most car seat manufactures say they can't make an affordable car seat to pass the required test without adding retardants.
The test was developed in the 70's to address fires that start inside the car, especially "from sources such as matches or cigarettes." Car seats became mandatory years later and must now pass the same test.
Fire scientists, health advocates and car seat manufactures argue that the 45-year-old federal flammability standard, and retardants added to meet it, does not provide a significant safety benefit in a child's car seat.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) disagrees, stating, "We believe the [flammability] standard has served to save many children." However, when questioned last year for the KPIX investigation, NHTSA admitted it never actually tested the standard in car seats and has no evidence of a safety benefit in real world fires.
We then collected homemade car seat covers from chemical conscious parents across the country. The covers, purchased on ETSY, had been made without flame retardants and would not meet the federal standard.
However, in a side-by-side combustion test, a homemade car seat cover without retardants performed as well as, if not better than, one with the chemicals.
Passionate Parents Prompt Change
Many were frustrated they couldn't buy a car seat without retardants. As UPPAbaby's founder explained in our Facebook LIVE interview, their passion eventually motivated UPPAbaby to try something that had never been done.
"They were angry at us, they were angry at everybody. It really kind of bothered me for a while," said UPPAbaby Co-founder Bob Monahan." So, we challenged our R & D department, 'Make a fire retardant-free car seat. Show me what it looks like. Show me what it costs. And maybe we can sell it.'"
He said UPPAbaby spent the next year developing its new Merino Wool fabric which is specially woven to naturally resist flames. Not all wool is flame resistant.
"The weave makes a difference, (during development) we had some materials that pass and some don't pass. If it's a brushed surface, it has loose fabrics, that's more likely to burn," he explained.
UPPAbaby then laminated the new naturally flame resistant fabric to the outside of the foam padding, enabling its car seat to pass the test without retardants.
How UPPA Passes the Test
"The requirements are not to add the flame retardants, but you have to meet a performance standard," explained combustion Scientist Don Lucas.
As he demonstrated for the Facebook LIVE audience, the federal test requires a one-and-a-half-inch flame be applied to the outside of each material. Then, they time how fast the flame spreads across a small sample.
The testing procedures require manufacturers individually ignite each car seat material. In most car seats, that means they must ignite the fabric by itself and the foam by itself. Manufactures say the foam used in car seats generally cannot pass the test without retardants.
However, instead of adding retardants to the foam padding like many other manufactures, UPPAbaby laminated its naturally flame resistant fabric to the outside of the foam, allowing UPPA to test foam and fabric together as one single material. Instead of applying the flame to the naked foam, it's applied to the naturally flame resistant fabric on the outside of the foam which slows the flame and passes the test.
A couple of other high-end car seat manufacturers also laminate their fabric to the foam. However, instead of using naturally flame resistant fabric like UPPA, those other manufacturers told KPIX that they add flame retardants to the fabric to pass the test.
For now, Uppa is the only known car seat to meet the federal standard without any flame retardants at all. However, Monahan notes that the fabric is not proprietary so he believes others can, and eventually will, follow suit.
UPPA Q & A
Has the Mesa Henry been tested for retardants?
Before announcing its new retardant-free car seat, UPPA sent the Mesa Henry to independent researchers at both the Ecology Center and Duke University for testing. Neither found flame retardants. KPIX has not independently tested an UPPA Mesa Henry for flame retardants yet. We have been waiting until the car seats are available to the public so we can purchase one to test from an independent retailer.
Are all UPPAbaby car seats flame-retardant free?
No. Only its new Mesa Henry has the flame-retardant free fabric. And it is important to note that the Mesa is an infant car seat. The company doesn't currently manufacture any convertible seats, however it hinted during the interview that one "may" be in development.
How much does it cost?
The Mesa Henry costs about $350, which is a $50 premium compared to UPPA's other car seats and many of its high-end competitors.
What do I do about the chemicals in my child's current car seat?
If you're concerned about the retardants in your current car seat, experts suggests vacuuming it often, washing your child's hands when they get out of the car and, they stress, don't use the car seat outside of the car as a stroller seat or for sleeping in the home.
But remember, car seats are critical to keeping kids safe in the car and they are required by law.
Consumer advocates and manufactures stress that regulatory changes are needed to create an affordable flame retardant free option for every child. Notably, the top ranking car seats in the Ecology Center's recent 2016 car seat flame retardant study ranged in price from $250- $450.
The study notes the following three main points:
"Flame retardants are still widespread – Aside from the UPPAbaby seat, FRs were found in all of the car seats that were tested, 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 (BFRs) -- This is concerning, as brominated chemicals are typically persistent, bioaccumulative, and often toxic."
"Alternatives to BFRs have not been tested for toxicity -- Manufacturers have stopped using some flame retardants with known hazards, but the health effects of many of the substitutes are unknown."
The Ecology Center is encouraging lawmakers to exempt child seats from the federal flammability standard and notes NHTSA "can provide no evidence suggesting that the rule protects children in vehicle fires."
Congressman Jared Huffman introduced legislation last year that could lead to affordable flame retardant free-car seats. It's intended to force NHTSA to revise its standard, enabling manufacturers to more easily meet the federal standard without retardants while still maintaining fire safety. However, the legislation has not seen much movement since it was introduced.
The blogger Natural Baby Mama launched an online change.org petition to urge lawmaker support for legislation.
This is a rare case where manufacturers, health advocates and fire scientists all agree on changes to a regulation. Health advocates contend that chemical flame retardants can be harmful to children while Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) questions whether the flame retardants are necessary for safety in child car seats.
Meanwhile, leading fire scientists insist that the flammability standard in car seats is largely irrelevant to fire safety in a real-world car fire as it's intended to address a 1.5 inch flame. They note that retardants inside the child's car seat would do little to protect children from real-world car fire flames.
NHTSA has begun a "two-year research program to evaluate potential improvements" to the standard. When asked for an update on that work, the agency provided KPIX with the following statement:
"At the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, safety is the highest priority, particularly the safety of children. With 200,000 vehicle fires every year, federal safety standards for car seats are designed to both protect kids in crashes and allow time to get them out of burning vehicles. NHTSA reminds parents that the safest way for a child to travel in a vehicle is in a properly used car seat– every trip, every time."
Health advocates tell KPIX they are concerned that the agency's research program could potentially lead to stricter flammability standards and more retardants in vehicles as well as child seats.
The American Chemistry Council tells KPIX, "It is important to note that the presence of a chemical in a product does not necessarily mean that the product is harmful to human health or that these products are not in compliance with safety standards and laws."
NHTSA's final report on improvements to the standard is expected in June of 2018. It is not clear when, or if, the outcome would impact car seat manufacturers.
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