The Harmful Chemical Lurking in Your Children’s Toys
So Dr. Stapleton did what any new mother with access to a state of the art chemistry lab and a $120,000 sample analyzer would do. She cut a snippet of the tent and brought it back to her lab for analysis. She was shocked by what she found on the fabric: a flame retardant, called chlorinated tris, that manufacturers had voluntarily removed from baby pajamas decades earlier after researchers showed it could alter DNA, and likely cause cancer, in test tubes.
“That really horrified me,” she said, recalling how her son, Joshua, loved to play peekaboo through the tunnel’s mesh windows. “He put his mouth all over that mesh.”
Flame retardants are chemicals that manufacturers started adding to commercial and consumer products in the 1970s to meet flammability standards. While not all of the hundreds of flame retardants on the market present health risks, scientists have raised concerns about formulations that contain chlorine, bromine or phosphorous. Flame retardants are typically added to goods with the potential to ignite, like upholstered furniture, baby products, electronics, building and construction materials, clothing, car seats and vehicle interiors. The chemicals can escape from treated products and penetrate the skin or accumulate in dust, which kids can get on their hands and put in their mouths.
Extensive research in lab animals has linked different flame retardants to various health problems. Brominated flame retardants, which have received the most scrutiny, can build up in tissue, cause cancer, disrupt hormones, harm the reproductive system and cause neurodevelopmental problems, at least in animals and perhaps humans too. Studies in people are limited, largely because they require far more time and resources, but have found similar effects, including increased risk of cancer, lower I.Q. and possibly behavioral problems in young children, including hyperactivity, aggression and bullying. Earlier this year, researchers reported that brominated flame retardants surpassed lead as the biggest contributor to I.Q. loss and intellectual disability in children.
So how did they end up in Joshua’s toy? Flame retardants, like many toxic chemicals, are loosely regulated. Manufacturers aren’t required to prove that they’re safe or even that they keep products from going up in flames. Although researchers have linked numerous flame retardants to serious health effects, federal regulators never banned their use in all products. So when manufacturers agree to stop using flame retardants in one product, like baby pajamas, they just find other uses for them — or switch to similar chemicals that scientists haven’t evaluated yet.