If you’ve seen my coverage of chemicals in car seats, you likely know that a biomonitoring study found high levels of a known “cancer-causing flame retardant” in my child; the same flame retardant was in her car seat.
The study, conducted by the Environmental Working Group and Duke University, actually had nothing to do with car seats. However, due to an embargo, I have only been able to disclose my child’s results—until now.
(KPIX 5) — Just weeks after congress passed a law giving the Environmental Protection Agency more power to ban harmful chemicals; a new study demonstrates just how much chemical regulations can impact the health of our nation’s youth.
From couch cushions, to baby products, to kid’s pajamas, chemical flame retardants are widely used in consumer goods. As a result, the average American infant has the highest recorded levels of these chemicals in their body. However, a peer-reviewed bio-monitoring study by the Environmental Working Group found that government regulations can increase those “potentially harmful exposures.”
About a year ago, I heard about a biomonitoring study that was testing the levels of concerning flame retardant chemicals in the bodies of mother-child pairs.
I’m not a particularly “green mom,” but as a result of my reporting on flame retardants, I’d made a significant effort to reduce my child’s exposure to the chemicals. So, when this study came up, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see if her levels were lower than the average child.
I figured it would be an ironic twist if my efforts had little impact because… well… chemicals are in everything.
I could write an entire sidebar about how difficult it is to get a urine sample from an 11-month old, but I will spare you the details. Let’s just say, after several messy mishaps and a series of test kits, I was second guessing my decision.
I ultimately collected and submitted the necessary samples, then forgot about the study until I received our results months later.
I never imagined that my daughter’s results would ultimately lead to a national KPIX investigation “exposing alleged false advertising, apparent legal loopholes and outdated federal regulations that systematically expose millions of children to concerning, even known-cancer-causing, chemicals in their car seats.”
The EWG-Duke Study
Unrelated to our ‘Toxic Safety’ investigation, EWG and Duke University tested 28 mothers and 33 children in California for the metabolites of some of the most concerning flame retardant chemicals. My daughter and I were among the study participants. They then compared those results to mother-child pairs previously tested in New jersey.
Ultimately, the EWG-Duke study concluded that “misguided government regulations” are unnecessarily increasing “potentially harmful exposures” to flame retardants.
Specifically, they found that kids in California had much higher levels of concerning flame retardant chemicals in their bodies than kids in New Jersey. One of the chemicals they tested for is known to cause cancer in animals. Another chemical is a suspected endocrine-disruptor that may affect the way our bodies control fat metabolism.
The study linked the increased levels in California kids to a 1970s California flammability regulation that prompted manufacturers to add flame retardants to pretty much anything with foam that was sold in the Golden State.
Some of the commonly used chemicals have now been linked to health and environmental problems. Those safety concerns, combined with a growing awareness that the chemicals did not substantially improve furniture fire safety, led to a revision of the California regulation shortly before EWG conducted this study.
EWG believes that the increased levels of chemicals in California kids are directly linked to the state regulation that ultimately increased their exposure to these chemicals.
Wash Their Hands
Not surprisingly, the study also found that kids on both coasts had much higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than their mothers did. Because children routinely have their hands (and anything else that will fit) in their mouths, kids are more likely to ingest the chemicals, which break down and migrate into dust.
In this sample of children, EWG found that the younger the child, the higher the level of chemicals in their bodies—likely due to increased hand-to-mouth contact in younger children.
Also notable, thumb sucking was associated with higher levels, but the study found that frequent hand washing contributed to lowered levels.
While not the primary finding of the study, that alone does provide valuable insight into how to reduce exposure—wash your kids’ hands!
Useful tips from the EWG to reduce kids’ exposure to concerning chemicals:
- Shop smart. Purchase furniture that doesn’t contain flame retardants.
(I might add, seek out car seats with “safer chemicals”).
- Look for labels that disclose flame retardant content–often noted on the underside. If you can’t find a label, ask the retailer.
- Because flame retardants often contaminate dust on floors where children play, parents should use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to help remove smaller dust particles, wet mop floors
- Always have children wash their hands before eating.
Overall, this study highlights the fact that misguided and weak regulations can increase potentially harmful exposures. In this case, it was a state regulation. However, there are similar federally mandated regulations, like those for car seats.
Currently, manufacturers do not have to prove a chemical is safe before adding it to a product. They don’t even have to disclose which chemicals they are using–thus the reason you still have to have your car seats tested by a third party to find out if they contain chemicals “known to cause cancer.” Shockingly, we found many still do.
So, why should you care?
The World Health Organization finds nearly 1 in 5 cancers are caused by chemicals and other environmental exposures. While the presence of any one toxic chemical in your body does not necessarily translate to harmful health effects, researchers say the bigger issue is the unknown risk of the smorgasbord of chemicals found in our bodies and how they affect us when combined, even in small quantities.
As the EWG points out, antismoking efforts “have cut the rate of lung cancer by more than 25 percent in the last 25 years.” What if reducing the number of untested and known carcinogenic chemicals in our kids’ environment could do the same for cancer rates overall?
Calling on Lawmakers & Regulators
Here’s what the study’s authors want regulators and lawmakers to do.
The EWG-Duke study underscores how the misguided regulations exposed people to harmful chemicals.
These findings come as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission considers implementing a national furniture flammability standard. Health advocates are urging the Commission to adopt a standard that will not result in the increased use of flame retardants. The agency is also weighing a petition to ban a class of toxic chemicals called organohalogens from four types of consumer products: upholstered furniture, children’s products, electronics, and mattresses or mattress pads. In 2015, EWG collected more than 10,000 signatures in support of this ban.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission should immediately prohibit the use of flame retardants in baby items and children’s products. Until their use in kids’ products ends, EWG supports local, state and national labeling efforts that help consumers can make informed choices.
The Commission is also considering a national furniture flammability standard. EWG supports a standard that will not encourage or increase the use of flame retardants.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has reintroduced the Children and Firefighter Protection Act, which would ban 10 toxic flame retardant chemicals, including TDCIPP and TCIPP, from being used in upholstered home furniture and children’s products. Metabolites of TDCIPP and TCIPP were detected in all California study participants. The bill would also require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to appoint an advisory panel tasked with evaluating the health risks of other flame retardants and make recommendations that could restrict their use. EWG continues to support this important piece of legislation.
The California case shows that misguided regulations can increase exposure to harmful chemicals. As the EPA implements the overhauled federal chemical safety law, it must ensure that chemicals are safe before they come to market and reduce the public’s exposure to toxic substances.
Chemical Industry Response
Here is the response to the study from the chemical industry.
Flame retardants provide an important layer of fire protection and help save lives. Indeed, fires have dropped significantly over the past 40 years and a major contributor to the decline in fires and fire deaths since the 1970s was the development of a comprehensive set of fire-safety measures, such as the flammability standards that were put in place in California.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that ‘the presence of a chemical does not imply disease. The levels or concentrations of the chemical are more important determinants of the relation to disease, when established in appropriate research studies, than the detection or presence of a chemical.’ Based on this guidance, the public would need more information before drawing any conclusions about the biomonitoring data in this study.
“It is important to note that the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was signed and enacted into law by President Obama on June 22, 2016.The new law will provide more effective federal oversight of chemicals and give Americans greater confidence that chemicals in commerce are being used safely. So Californians do not have to choose between chemical safety and fire safety. They can and do have both.”