Flame retardants and my child

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(Avoid “flame resistant” on pajama labels. All photos by Sara Michael)

It turns out that every time I flop down on my couch, I am releasing toxic fumes into the air. Toxins that settle in the dust and make their way into my kid’s mouth as he shuffles around on the floor touching and mouthing everything. Right now, my kid is ensconced in chemicals, thanks to the super cute dinosaur footie pajamas I just bought him.

I read a New York Times magazine article last night about the ubiquity of flame retardants in our homes and one woman’s crusade against them — which lead me to read another dozen articles online — and I am freaked out. We should all be freaked out.

Let’s start with the couch. Flame retardants are injected into the foam, but since they aren’t chemically bonded, they are released into the air. And high concentrations of the chemicals, associated with everything from antisocial behavior to impaired fertility to diabetes, have been found in the bodies of all kinds of animals and children. Children.

Check the labels for TB 117.

The catch is that the flame retardants in our furniture don’t work, but manufacturers are still using them. The study used to show the fire-slowing effect of the chemicals has been grossly distorted and misapplied by the chemical companies. Science now shows that, in the amount they’re used, flame retardants don’t work and are in fact harmful to our health. And our children’s health. Our children.

The more I read, the less I feel like we can ignore it. The couch. The rug padding. Perhaps one of the most disturbing uses of the flame retardants is in children’s pajamas. I thought they stopped doing that?

This weekend I bought my kid two pairs of snazzy brightly colored pajamas from Kohl’s for half off. One PJ set, a long sleeve shirt and pants with glow-in-the-dark monsters, had a giant yellow tag attached explaining of the hazards of loose-fitting clothes. It may have mentioned something about how these jammies aren’t flame resistant (hence the warning sign), I don’t remember, and I have since thrown the tag away. The second pair, dark blue footies with dinosaurs, didn’t have a warning tag, but under the inside collar read the words “flame resistant.” It sounds pretty innocuous, maybe even beneficial.

I didn’t think much of it. Why not? I guess because he really needed new pajamas and I had just bought them on sale. It seems obvious that flame retardants in kid’s clothes aren’t great, but surely manufacturers wouldn’t put our children at risk, right? Maybe they now contain a less toxic retardant? Surely, given what we know about chemicals and babies and science and reasonable human thinking, they wouldn’t still make children’s items with toxins. It is 2012. We know lots about the ill effects of chemicals, and kids — you’d think — would the first we’d protect. Right?

Are there toxic chemicals in my couch?

I guess not. So I’m freaked out.

But the manufacturers also don’t make it easy to know where the flame retardants are used, although one way to know is if the tag on the foam says something about complying with Technical Bulletin 117. It’s a California regulation that essentially governs a vast majority of upholstered furniture sold in the U.S., according to the Times piece.

Sure enough, my son’s foam diaper changing pad has that label.

It’s also not always easy to find alternatives for those of us who can’t ignore the science behind the use of these chemicals and demand a safer, healthier option. I haven’t thrown out our couch — yet — but I do think I will go through my son’s pajamas and toss those that include any synthetic fibers. Natural fibers like cotton, I read here, aren’t manufactured with the brominated flame retardant chemicals. This column also suggested you look for pajamas that have tags warning you to dress your kid in snug fitting clothing, like the monster pajamas I bought. And avoid ones that have labels that say “flame resistant,” like the footie pair that will soon make its way to the garbage.

It’s hard not to go overboard, or feel so freaked out and overwhelmed that I don’t do anything. If I get rid of the pajamas, do I toss his changing pad? What about his mattress? Our couch?

I guess I have to look at it like I do other chemicals in our lives, taking reasonable steps where I can to reduce our exposure. Take for example, the chemical triclosan, common in antibacterial soaps, toothpaste and other personal care items (Just check the drug facts label. It’s everywhere.). Triclosan has been found to cause liver toxicity and perhaps impaired muscle function, as well as intersex fish in the Chesapeake Bay. But it turns out you don’t even need that antibacterial agent for your desired cleanliness, so we now buy soaps without tricolsan and natural toothpaste.

Similarly, whenever we can, we buy plastics free of bisphenol A (BPA), a known endocrine disruptor harmful to fetuses and young children. We make sure our diced tomatoes are in boxes, not cans, all of which contain BPA in the linings (The acidic nature of tomatoes, however, mean they can more readily leach the chemical into the food.). I can’t avoid all BPA, which is also found in paper cashier receipts and pretty much everywhere you look. But I try.

I’m not too naïve, though, and I know that just me and my buying habits won’t change the world. I take a tiny sliver of comfort knowing there are women like chemist and activist Arlene Blum fighting the good fight.

Don’t even get me started on how our federal government allows these chemicals to be used in our daily lives when studies vouching for their safety are scant, and the evidence against them is mounting.

None of this, of course, would matter if not for my boy. As long as I am making choices for him, I feel compelled to do what I can to protect him. I makes my heart hurt to think about the dangers he faces, especially the invisible ones that seem almost impossible to avoid. We should all be outraged that we as a society are allowing these chemicals into our products and homes and eventually, our children’s bodies.

2 thoughts on “Flame retardants and my child

  • December 10, 2012 at 9:10 PM

    I understood that BPA linings are in aluminium cans and not iron ones. I buy iron cans since the moment I read about it, I never really thought about the differences in cans as I had no ideas.
    Is this true?. Im pretty sure I read it in a study done (I generally dont like to just follow what a random blogger says, I like to see studies done and its results and from good sources). Still it would be nice to be sure.

  • Karl B. Hille
    September 24, 2012 at 10:13 PM

    California had a problem in the late 70s with a fire official wrapping lit cigarettes in yellow lined paper and stuffing them in warehouse store couches. Apparently couches go up pretty well when you leave smoldering cigarettes in between the cushions – burned whole stores in minutes.

    So we all get to inhale toxins because some people can’t manage to smoke a cigarette without falling asleep. (or because of one firebug)


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