A semi-annual car-seat-chemical study finds children's car seats are getting healthier, but most still contain concerning fire-retardant chemicals. Another sign of change, the first-ever flame retardant-free car seat, made with naturally flame resistant materials, is expected to hit the market next year.
This year's report, by the Michigan-based Ecology Center, focused on 15 top-selling brands of car seats, among them: BabyTrend, Britax, Chicco, Clek, Cosco, Diono, Evenflo, Graco, Joie, Maxi-Cosi, Nuna, Orbit, Recaro and Safety 1st.
For the first time in 10 years, it found "none of the car seats contained any chlorinated retardants," according to the Ecology Center's Jeff Gearhart. "This is a long time coming." Additionally, none of the 15 seats tested contained lead or other hazardous metals.
Last years Ecology Center report tipped off KPIX to concerning flame retardants that were found in car seats specifically advertised not to contain them. That led to a year-long KPIX-CBS investigation that ultimately exposed alleged false advertising and outdated federal regulations that systematically expose millions of children to concerning, even known-cancer-causing, chemicals in their car seats.
This year's study shows significant strides toward safer car seats, chemically speaking, but concerns remain.
NOTE: Regardless of concerns about chemical hazards in the seat, the safest place for a children in a moving vehicle is in a rear-facing car seat in the back seat. It is recommended that children as old as 12 ride in safety or booster seats.
The study found 13 out of the 15 car seats tested contained brominated flame retardants. Chemicals, Gearhart says can be toxic and can accumulate in the body. In addition to car seat foam, this year the Ecology Center tested over 300 other car seat components. Concerning chemicals were also found in things like warning labels, cup holders, Velcro and most surprising, fabrics. Many fabrics are naturally flame retardant.
All 15 of the seats tested this year also contained phosphorous-based flame retardants, believed to be a safer alternative, but Gearhart's group says "health-related data (is) lacking."
Environmental scientists say flame retardants break down and migrate into dust, which kids inhale and ingest. Studies commonly find these chemicals inside children.
Car seats are the only consumer product that is required by law in all 50 states, but there are currently no car seats on the market without chemical flame retardants.
"Some of the most widely used flame retardants since the 1970s are carcinogens, causing cancer in multiple organs in laboratory animals. Some disrupt hormones and reproduction and may contribute to obesity. Effects on fetal and child development and on the immune system have also been reported," the study states.
However, in response to the Ecology Center report, Bryan Goodman of the American Chemistry Council said "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."
He added, "flame retardants can be a very important tool in the fire safety toolbox, providing an important layer of protection and helping to save lives."
Flame Retardant Regulations:
Most car seat makers say that they are forced to used flame retardants in order to meet a 40-year-old federal regulation that requires each individual component of the seat pass a small-flame test.
However, fire scientists interviewed for a 2016 KPIX investigation argued that the small-flame test, and retardants added to pass it, are largely irrelevant to fire safety in real-world car fire conditions. They stated that by the time the fire reached the child in the car seat, it would be too late for retardants under the child to provide a significant benefit.
The Ecology Center study cited the KPIX investigation that also found the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has never evaluated the effectiveness of the regulation as it applies to car seats.
The study reads:
"As part of a months-long investigation into flame retardant chemicals in car seats, San Francisco CBS News reporter Julie Watts also found a surprising lack of data: 'In response to our investigation, NHTSA admitted that it has never evaluated the effectiveness of the federal motor vehicle standard in children's car seats. The agency also said it was unaware of any records, data or studies that indicate the current flammability standard is relevant or provides any fire safety benefit in a child's car seat. In fact, we reached out to more than a dozen government agencies and industry groups, and no one could provide any evidence.'"
Like NHTSA, the chemical industry argues that "Fire safety is an increasingly important consideration for drivers and their passengers." In a statement Goodman said, "there were 164,000 highway vehicle fires during 2013 resulting in 300 civilian fire deaths, 925 fire injuries and over $1.1 billion in property damage."
However, those statistics include all vehicle fires, including freight, construction vehicles and others that experts say are not relevant to the issue of child car seats. Furthermore, fire scientists interviewed by KPIX argued that the flammability standard in question is only relevant to fires first-ignited in vehicle upholstery. They argue that a fire ignited anywhere other than the child's car seat itself would be fueled by combustible materials, and the flames would be too large for retardants to be effective by the time they reached the child.
Data from the National Fire Protection Association indicated that only three percent of unintentional car fires began in upholstered material, resulting in fewer than three deaths per year. A 2008 study titled "Human Survivability in Motor Vehicle Fires" found the 1972 standard is "no longer relevant," because "the primary threat has changed" from "a lit cigarette, in 1960" to ignition of combustible materials "by an impact-induced fire."
As a result, the Ecology Center contends that the federal flammability standard is outdated and should be revised. "We want to stop using our kids as an experiment," Gearhart said.
Legislation Lacks Attention:
Congressman Jared Huffman introduced legislation that would force regulators to update the flammability standard for car seats, similar to a recent revision to the California furniture flammability standard. The updated standard would rely on smolder resistant outer fabrics or barrier fabrics. Flame retardants would no longer be necessary.
The Ecology Center, leading consumer groups, fire scientists and green scientists are all supporting the legislation that was introduced into the House Energy and Commerce committee in May. However, it has been largely ignored by members of congress.
The popular blogger Natural Baby Mama recently launched a change.org petition asking the Committee Chairman Fred Upton to bring the car seat flame retardant legislation up for a vote.
According to the Ecology Center and manufacturers, the legislation would allow some car seat manufactures to almost immediately begin manufacturing affordable flame retardant-free car seats.
The Price of Safety:
In the meantime, for those who can afford it, the Ecology Center says that a first-of-its kind flame-retardant-free car seat will soon be on the market.
In addition to the 15 car seats tested in the study, they also independently tested the upcoming UPPABaby Mesa Henry, expected in early 2017. Researchers confirmed UPPAbaby's flame-retardant-free claims. The company says it is using naturally flame resistant materials and engineering to meet the federal standard.
UppaBaby seems to have proved that, as regulators have long contended, car seats can be manufactured to meet the current standard without retardants. However, Gearhardt says that regulatory changes are needed for affordable FR-free car seats.
The UPPAbaby design changes are expensive, and as a result, will only apply to one model, for infants only, in one fabric option and cost $350. At that price, it is unlikely that most American families, especially those with multiple kids, can afford the first naturally flame retardant car seat. Notably, the top ranking car seats in the Ecology Center study are also expensive, ranging in price from $250- $450.
"It is a matter of basic fundamental justice that every child in the country have access to an affordable, healthy car seat," Gerhart said.
For in-depth information on the car seats tested in the study, resources for parents, and answers to your car seat flame retardant questions, visit reporter Julie Watts' NewsMom blog. You can also ask questions on her Facebook page.
This story was updated on 12-14-16
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