Fire-retardant chemicals play an important role in keeping households safe. But recently some environmental scientists have raised concerns that the chemicals used to treat everyday household items may cause cancer and a host of other illnesses.
Now a new study released on Wednesday, which examined the chemical composition of baby products containing polyurethane foam — including nursing pillows, changing table pads, high chairs, car seats and some strollers — found that many such items are laced with high levels of these chemicals.
(More on TIME.com: Environmental Toxins Cost Billions in Childhood Disease)
The question for parents, though, is what to do with this information. The long-term health effects of these chemicals, which may save lives in the case of fire or car accident, have not been authoritatively established.
In a study of 101 commonly used baby products, published in the Environmental Science & Technology Journal, researchers found that 80 contained a flame retardant additive. Though all legal, these chemicals have been linked to cancer, loss of fertility and other deleterious health effects in animal studies.
The most prevalent chemical was chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that was banned from children’s pajamas because of health concerns in the 1970s, though the chemical is not banned outright by the U.S. government. In animal studies, chlorinated Tris has been associated with liver, brain, kidney and testicular cancer. The chemical was found in 29 of the 101 products.
(More on TIME.com: BPA Exposure in Pregnancy May Be Linked to Childhood Asthma)
Other chemicals were discovered, too: 14 products contained TCEP, a flame retardant that some countries have banned. And four contained contained Penta-BDE, a flame retardant that builds up in human tissue and that manufacturers voluntarily began phasing out in 2004; it is banned in 72 countries. In all, 80% of products included fire-retardant chemicals.
“Toxic or untested flame retardants like the ones found in this study can migrate out of products and end up in our homes and our bodies. These chemicals are associated with adverse human health effects including reduced IQ, increased time to pregnancy, endocrine and thyroid disruption, and impaired child development,” says Arlene Blum, a co-author of the study and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. Blum’s work in the 1970s contributed to the removal of Tris flame retardants from children’s
Blum says the chemicals exist in many baby products because of a California-state law, Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), which requires that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. California is a large enough market to dictate that manufacturers comply to the standard for all nationwide products. Blum and others, such as the umbrella pressure group The Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety, are calling for a a repeal of California TB 117.
(More on TIME.com: Exposure to Pesticides in Pregnancy Can Lower Children’s IQ)
Unfortunately, there is no way for concerned parents to know whether a particular baby product contains the chemicals — manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants or list which chemicals are used. However, Sarah Janssen, an assistant professor at University of California-San Francisco Medical School and a senior scientist with Natural Resources Defense Council, says that many furniture products with foam carry a “TB 117 compliant” label and that such products probably have chemical fire retardants.
Four brands — BabyLuxe Organic, Baby Bjorn, Orbit Baby and Boppy — say their products meet California’s standards without chemical flame retardants, according to a buyer’s guide issued with the study.
More importantly for parents, however, is whether it’s even possible to know for sure that the chemicals are dangerous. Some countries have listed them as dangerous or banned them; others have not. Also unclear is whether the chemicals, even if dangerous, have any chance of migrating out of products and being absorbed by humans. Many children’s products that use foams have plastic covers around them. And some scientists say that it is only when polyurethane foam catches fire and smolders that the chemicals are released in any significant quantity.
(More on TIME.com: Parabens Outlawed in Childrens’ Products in Denmark)
There is also disagreement about whether flame retardant materials save lives and, if so, whether they may be worth the health risk — but again it’s not known how effective the “12-second rule” is in protecting children from fire. In a statement released on its website, the American Chemistry Council, which represents manufacturers of flame retardants, said the products are “well-studied and provide important fire safety benefits in homes, cars and public areas.”
“The flame retardants currently in use are allowed by the relevant regulatory authorities. This study attempts to examine the existence of certain flame retardants in a small sampling of children’s products,” the council said, in a statement. “It does not address exposure or risk.”
It’s difficult to know whom to believe in the contentious debate about flame retardant chemicals, though it does seem certain that government guidelines are not always as stringent as they should be. To this day, the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to ban asbestos, a fire-retardant mineral that is now well known to cause lung cancer.
(More on TIME.com: 6 Common Sources of Radiation In Your Life)
“Parents shouldn’t have to become toxicologists, they shouldn’t have to learn the alphabet soup of all these potentially toxic and complicated chemicals,” says Bobbi Chase Wilding, an environmental health advocate from Clean New York who lobbies on chemical retardants. “We should have the assurance that just as a car seat is rated to protect their health in an accident, it is also rated to protect their health in other ways.”