I-Team: Researchers warn of hidden chemicals in car seats

Posted at 10:40 PM, Nov 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-10 23:41:31-05

It's required by law and supposed to keep your kids safe, but car seats could also be exposing them to long-term health risks.

Researchers are taking a closer look at the flame retardant chemicals used to treat foam in the things we use every day, like car seats. I wanted to see what's in my kid's seats and in the process I learned these chemicals are also making their way into children's bodies.  
Meg Loduha has three kids in car seats. She said a lot of research went into buying the seats, like looking at safety ratings.  
"You don't think about what they're breathing in from the car seat," she said.
But a newer model of Meg's 2012 Graco booster scored "high" in the hazard chemical category by a non-profit out of Michigan. It tests flame retardants in car seats.  
"You wonder how has that affected their health, and what now?" she asked.
All car seats are made with at least one flame retardant. Manufacturers said it's necessary to meet the federal flammability standard for vehicles, but it can also expose kids to toxic chemicals.
Like most children, my boys have spent a lot of time in car seats, so I wanted to see what's in them. Back in August I cut foam samples from two seats and sent them to Duke University to be tested, for free. Researchers are studying the use of these chemicals in every day products. 
Lead researcher, Heather Stapleton, went over the results with me.
The chemical found in my Graco convertible seat, still used by my two-year-old, Stapleton said has only limited research.
"There's a lot of concern about the potential health effects," she said.
The chemical is a type of chlorinated tris. It's very similar to TDCPP, a known toxic flame retardant phased out of kid's pajamas in the 70's because of health concerns.  
"It is considered a probable carcinogen and has shown to have some developmental toxicity," Stapleton said.
Because of that, many companies have started using different flame retardants in car seats, ones that haven't been studied and might not be any safer. One of those, V6, was detected in my infant seat.
"Over time these chemicals can migrate out of the product into the air," Stapleton said.
Kids can inhale, ingest or absorb them. Researchers are now finding high levels of these chemicals in children's bodies.  
"You have just this small window of exposure when the brain is developing that can lead to later life effects in adulthood," Stapleton said.
The effectiveness of these chemicals is also being questioned. Some fire specialists point out flame retardants won't keep kids safe unless it's a small flame that starts in the car seat.
"If there's that much fire in the cab of a vehicle, which really doesn't take long to occur, it really doesn't matter what the seat is made of at that point," said Aaron Lipski, a Deputy Chief with the Milwaukee Fire Department.  
Which is why some argue the 1972 federal standard for motor vehicles is irrelevant. The primary threat used to be a lit cigarette, now it's combustible materials catching fire in an accident. 
Meg hopes car seat manufacturers step up and find another way to meet the standard that doesn't put her kid's health at risk.
"If it means that the price of a car seat is going to go up, if they need to do more testing, I would pay the extra amount of money to keep my kids safe," she said.
One company is working on an infant car seat that meets the standard using no flame retardant chemicals. It would be the first.
Some manufacturers have moved away from using known hazardous chemicals in baby products. Nursing pillows no longer have to meet a flammability standard, and over the last six years many companies have stopped using the type of chlorinated tris known to cause cancer.
How to test products in your home, for free: Duke Foam Test
Full statement from Graco Children's Products:
"The safety of our products and the consumers that use them is our highest priority. At Graco we manufacture products that exceed all relevant mandatory safety and regulatory standards, including a requirement for car seats to be treated in order to meet the federal flammability requirement for the interior of vehicles. Graco is constantly reviewing the materials used in our products with the latest regulatory and credible scientific data. We have high confidence that our rigorous processes ensure our products are free of known hazardous substances. As a clarification to a recent Child Car Seat Study by, Graco can confirm that all products manufactured after March 1, 2014 do not contain HBCD and we were compliant to the UN/Stockholm Convention well in advance of the November 26, 2014 mandate. According to the study itself, the presence of UBC ("Unidentified Brominated Compounds") detected in the Graco Turbobooster sample that was tested provides no evidence or verification that the unidentified compounds are actually a flame retardant or harmful. While TBC and TBEP were detected in the two Graco car seat samples tested, there is no current credible science or data to suggest these compounds are hazardous to consumers and they are not currently banned by the federal government, Canada, nor the European Union. Graco will continue to aggressively evaluate the potential hazards posed as a result of the chemicals used in our products and will not hesitate to change any substances that have reliable scientific evidence to cause harm to our consumers."