I-Team: Toxic chemicals still being used in new car seats

Posted at 10:18 PM, Jan 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-11 23:33:24-05

In a recent investigation we found some of the most harmful flame retardants are still being used in kid's car seats.  Now the I-Team is looking at changes made by manufacturers and whether it's enough to keep kids safe.

In our November I-Team investigation I tested my boys' car seats for flame retardant chemicals.  These chemicals are in a lot of the things we use like furniture and children's products.  In a new study a non-profit group found more changes are needed to limit kid's exposure to harmful chemicals.

It's required by law to keep children safe in a vehicle, and most kids spend a lot of time in their car seat.  "She's in the car seat hours a day sometimes if I'm carting kids around." Milwaukee mom, Meg Loduha is talking about her youngest of three children.  Toxic chemicals were not on her radar when she shopped for a safe seat.  "You don't think about what they're breathing in from the car seat."

All seats are made with flame retardants or "FR's."  Manufacturers say the chemicals are used to meet a 1970's federal flammability requirement.  "We have been pushing for companies to phase out all of the halogenated chemicals," Gillian Miller, a scientist with the Ecology Center in Michigan told us. Halogenated chemicals are a class of FR's that includes bromine and chlorine.  "They tend to stick to dust, and dust gets accidentally ingested or it can get into the air," Miller explained.

The center has been testing car seats for years.  It just released results of the chemicals it found in 2016 model seats. Brominated FR's were found in the foam used in 13 out of 15 seats.  Chemicals that can be toxic and in some cases cause cancer.  They also accumulate in the body.  The center also tested car seat fabrics. A surprising 25% of samples were positive for brominated FR's. 

Last summer I sent samples from my boys' Graco car seats to Duke University for a free test.  Potentially toxic chemicals in the chlorinated tris family were found in both.  Chemicals that may cause cancer and accumulate in the liver and kidneys.  Good news in the 2016 seat test. No chlorinated chemicals were used, which includes the Graco seat. A big improvement from the 2014 study. 

It's not illegal to use flame retardants, but Miller says that doesn't mean there are not significant health risks.  "There are years, or sometimes even decades, between understanding something about negative health hazards or health effects and actually making a regulation."

One car seat manufacturer is ahead of the curve.  UPPAbaby, which makes high-end car seats, is releasing an infant seat with no FR's, and it passes the federal flame standard.  Something many parents, like Meg, are hoping becomes the industry standard. "There's no dollar amount I wouldn't spend to keep my kids safe."

The UPPAbaby infant car seat will be available in March, but it's expensive.  It runs around $350.  The Ecology Center is hoping this opens the door for other manufacturers that normally make lower priced seats.  The center says its possible to create an affordable seat with no chemical additives.   There is also a push to update the 1970's flammability standard for car seats. A California lawmaker introduced new legislation last May.  It would modernize the standard, reducing children's exposure to these harmful chemicals.