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updated 5/18/2011 11:48:17 AM ET 2011-05-18T15:48:17

Flame retardant chemicals appeared in the majority of baby products that scientists tested in a recent study, including car seats, nursing pillows, changing pads, baby carriers and rocking chairs.

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Of the numerous chemicals identified in the study, some are classified as probable carcinogens. Some are known to disrupt hormonal systems. And some have been linked to brain damage. The researchers were particularly surprised to detect one chemical that they thought had been phased out years ago.

The study was not able to quantify the health risks of baby products that are treated with these chemicals. Still, the findings are worrisome enough that it’s worth seeking out alternatives, said lead researcher Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

As the mother of a 2-year-old and 2-week-old, she takes great care to limit exposure to flame retardants in her own home.

“We’re hoping to raise awareness about whether these products are fire hazards in the first place, whether they require chemicals to be in there if they are, and if they can be treated in other ways,” Stapleton said. “We’re not trying to compromise fire safety. But there have got to be other ways of treating these to reduce flammability without adding these chemicals.”

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Flammability practices around the United States are heavily influenced by California standards, which require that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand exposure to a small, open flame for 12 seconds. The cheapest and easiest way to meet that standard, Stapleton said, is to add chemicals to the foam.

In treated products, however, flame retardant chemicals are not chemically bound. So the compounds leach out of the foam and turn into dust, which is easy for babies to get on their hands and in their mouths. Despite the known ubiquity of flame retardant chemicals in furniture, scientists have debated whether companies also use them to treat polyurethane foam in products that are designed for small children.

To find out, Stapleton and colleagues acquired 101 samples of foam from a variety of products purchased around the United States. Items, which were donated for the study, included car seats, changing table pads, sleep positioners, portable crib mattresses, nursing pillows, high chairs and infant bath mats.

Using a variety of chemical analysis techniques, the researchers found a suite of flame-retardants in 80 of the samples. Most of the chemicals belonged to a class called chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs), they reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Many products contained multiple flame retardant chemicals.

Two compounds had never before been described in the published environmental literature, the study also found. And five samples contained a chemical called PentaPBDE, which was phased out by manufacturers in 2004, suggesting that either the chemical is still being used or that it persists for long periods of time.

The findings raise serious concerns about health risks to infants and small children, who are most vulnerable to the toxic effects of these chemicals and who spend lots of time in contact with products that contain them.

For example, the study found concentrations of a chemical called TDCPP in baby products that were on par with concentrations often found in upholstered furniture. And infant exposure to TCDPP from furniture is already five times higher than acceptable safe limits, estimated a 2006 report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

While the new findings are important and potentially alarming, it’s not yet clear how big of a health risk chemically treated, flame-resistant baby products actually are, said Arnold Schecter, a public health physician at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas. Further studies are needed.

“This is a little worrisome,” Schecter said. “It’s important to know this. And the next important thing is to find out how frequent this is, what levels are there and what sort of risk this poses. The big question is: What is the toxicity? And how much is getting into children?”

As research continues, a number of experts have already begun lobbying to ban entire classes of flame retardants altogether. After all, Stapleton said, the chemicals don’t actually prevent things objects burning. They simply slow it down, buying people a few extra seconds to escape. In the process, they produce more smoke and more carbon monoxide than untreated objects do as they burn.

In the meantime, Stapleton recommended that parents look for baby products made with polyester or other materials instead of polyurethane foam. And if a product’s label says that it conforms to Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) as declared by the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, don’t buy it, she said. That’s a sure sign that it contains toxic chemicals that could threaten the health of your baby.

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