A child’s car seat is the only consumer product that is required by law in all 50 states. Car seats are crucial to keeping children safe in the car. However, critics argue that a 1970s-era federal motor vehicle flammability regulation is needlessly exposing children to concerning, even known-cancer-causing, chemical flame retardants in their car seats.
This year-long investigation began with a NewsMom blog post after a study found concerning flame retardant chemicals in 75 percent of the car seats tested. Among them, we noticed a high-priced, allegedly “green” car seat that was advertised to be free of the chemicals.
That led, first, to a consumer story about alleged false advertising for KPIX and CBS This Morning. However, as we began to peel back the layers of this complicated issue, we discovered legal loopholes and outdated federal regulations that may systematically expose millions of children to concerning, even known-cancer-causing, chemicals in their car seats—for no apparent safety benefit.
Over the course of a year, we’ve lit car seats on fire, commissioned lab tests on car seats and children who use them, and we’ve interviewed experts from every applicable industry. The findings have prompted action by Congress and changes within the car seat industry, but experts stress that regulatory changes are needed.
This is a rare case where manufacturers, health advocates and fire scientists all agree on changes to a regulation. Health advocates contend that chemical flame retardants can be harmful to children, citing decades of peer-reviewed research that finds “known-cancer-causing retardants” inside children who are exposed to them.
Meanwhile, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) questions whether the flame retardants are necessary for safety in child car seats.
Leading fire scientists insist the chemicals are not necessary. They contend that the 45-year-old federal flammability standard, and retardants added to meet it, does not provide a significant safety benefit to children in car seats in real-world car fires.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) disagrees, stating, “We believe the [flammability] standard has served to save many children.” However, the agency admits it has no evidence and has never evaluated the benefit in a child’s car seat. NHTSA also points out that it “does not specify the application of chemical flame retardants.” However, manufacturers say they can not make affordable car seats to pass the flammability standard without adding chemical retardants.
The American Chemistry Council points out, “It is important to note that the presence of a chemical in a product does not necessarily mean that the product is harmful to human health or that these products are not in compliance with safety standards and laws.”
Representatives from nearly every applicable industry are now voicing support for recently introduced legislation that—for the first time—would give parents the option to purchase car seats without chemical flame retardants. It would update the standard for car seats, similar to California’s new furniture flammability standard, to encourage naturally smolder-resistant outer fabrics or barrier fabrics. Flame retardants would no longer be necessary.
In light of the more than 20 million U.S. children exposed to the chemicals in car seats daily, along with increasing concerns about the health effects of those chemicals that are being found inside the children themselves, and the lack of evidence that they provide a significant safety benefit in modern car fires, many believe it is incumbent upon NHTSA and Congress to accelerate an alternative flammability standard that does not ostensibly require chemical flame retardants for affordable car seats.
NOTE: Car seats in cars save lives. None of this information should be interpreted to imply otherwise. The safest place for a child in a moving vehicle is in a rear-facing car seat in the middle of the back seat.
As mentioned above, this investigation began with a NewsMom blog post by the founder of the site, Consumer-Investigative Reporter Julie Watts. As the resulting KPIX investigation progressed, we continued to utilize NewsMom as a resource for parents to access supplemental information that was not necessarily relevant or applicable to the general news audience.
Below, you will find links to each of the KPIX-CBS stories, their corresponding NewsMom supplements, additional information and resources for parents. For the backstory and a summary of our year-long investigation, relevant documents, data and background information, click here to jump below.
NewsMom is a resource for parents to access trustworthy news and information that impacts them. It is also an outlet for journalists to share their relevant research and reports with an audience of parents that they wouldn’t otherwise reach.
NOTE: This is a working document. Information may be periodically updated.
Manufacturers say they must add chemical flame retardants to make affordable car seats that pass the required federal flammability test. The test was designed in the ’70s for the interior of the vehicle itself, back when cigarettes were a common cause of car fires and car seats were not required. Chemicals are added to materials under the child and inside the car seat in order to “slow the spread” of a small 1.5 inch test flame.
Fire scientists argue that the test, and retardants added to pass it, is irrelevant to protecting kids in modern-day “real-world car fires.” They say the flames in an actual fire are simply too large for retardants to be effective, especially under the child and inside the car seat.
Meanwhile, peer-reviewed studies repeatedly find these chemicals inside children who are exposed to them. Researchers note that flame retardants break down and migrate into dust, which kids inhale and ingest by touching their seat, then putting their hands in their mouth. While decades of research link flame retardants in children’s products to serious health concerns, parents don’t currently have the option to purchase a car seat without retardants.**
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is considering a ban on flame retardant chemicals in children’s products. However, CPSC says it does not have jurisdiction over car seats, which are regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
NHTSA says it believes the flammability standard “has served to save many children” but admits that it has never “evaluated the safety benefit in children’s car seats” and has no evidence.
Groups from every applicable industry (fire science, toxicology, children’s products, consumer advocacy, etc.) have each called on NHTSA to revise its flammability standard for car seats. The groups, which rarely agree on regulatory issues, all support recently-introduced legislation that would require the agency update the standard.
The World Health Organization finds nearly 1 in 5 cancers are caused by chemicals and environmental exposures. WHO also notes that anti-smoking efforts cut the rate of lung cancer by more than 25 percent in 25 years.
Health advocates believe that reducing the number of unnecessary and untested chemicals in our kids’ environment could help do the same for cancer rates overall, and many believe that an updated car seat flammability standard is a significant step in that direction.
Many infants spend the majority of their early lives exposed to these chemicals. Despite warnings from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, car seats are commonly used outside of the car as all-purpose sleep, stroll and carrying devices.
** The first “naturally flame resistant” car seat is expected in 2017, however it will be cost prohibitive for most families and only available for infants.
First, the investigation revealed that even the greenest child car seat manufacturers, who pledge to avoid the most concerning flame retardant chemicals, have been unable to keep them out of their car seats. We commissioned tests at three independent labs, using the same EPA testing methodologies as the manufacturers. One retardant that was repeatedly found in “green” car seats is listed by regulators as “known to cause cancer” and was removed from kids’ pajamas in the ’70s due to health concerns. It is now illegal to sell a product with those chemicals in California without a warning label.
Next, an exhaustive search of public records exposed a more systemic issue. We discovered that retailers and manufacturers of several car seat brands and hundreds of children’s products had been caught selling products with the same chemicals, but were never required to notify consumers whose children are still using those products.
Then, using NewsMom and other relevant online communities, we mined social media to compile car seat flame retardant test results from parents across the country. The data helped to further demonstrate a systemic issue while the parents’ questions and concerns moved the investigation forward.
Next, utilizing bio-monitoring, we demonstrated a unique example of a link between the high levels of a cancer-causing flame retardant in a child’s body and the same flame retardant in the child’s car seat. However, in addition to investigating the concerns, we also put health risks into perspective and attempted to temper fear by providing simple solutions to help parents reduce exposure and risk.
Finally, the investigation pivoted to examine the benefit of flame retardants in children’s car seats. Unfortunately, there was no existing data to help answer that question.
The probe revealed that regulators have never evaluated the safety benefit of the 1972 federal flammability standard, which ostensibly requires flame retardants in car seats. Neither regulators, the chemical industry, nor anyone from more than a dozen applicable government agencies or industry groups could provide any evidence that the standard, or flame retardants added to meet it, offer a safety benefit in children’s car seats.
An in-depth analysis of nationwide car fire data and public records further demonstrated that regulators had been citing misleading car fire and injury statistics to defend the untested standard. The data revealed that the standard is only relevant to 3 percent of all car fires, and there is no indication that any of the relevant fires impacted children in car seats.
Due to the lack of existing evidence, KPIX5 commissioned its own combustion tests at a federal laboratory. After interviewing fire scientists who insisted the standard was irrelevant to protecting kids in real-world car fires, we attempted to visually demonstrate the required test and why the experts say it’s irrelevant.
Then we put the standard itself to the test by igniting two car seat samples, one with flame retardants that met the federal standard and an aftermarket car seat cover without flame retardants that did not. A car seat sample without flame retardants that did not meet NHTSA’s standard performed as well, if not better, than one that did.
NOTE: This is a working document. Information may be periodically updated.
After reviewing our findings, both the House and Senate Commerce Committees questioned regulators about the standard, and the issue was raised at a Senate committee hearing.
A nonpartisan congressional research report was commissioned following the KPIX5 investigation. It led Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA 2nd District) to conclude that, “Because any administrative changes to NHTSA’s flammability standard might take years, legislation is required that will force the adoption of a more reasonable smolder test for children’s car seats.”
As a result, Huffman introduced legislation into the House Commerce Committee that would require NHTSA to update its flammability standard for car seats, similar to a recent revision of the furniture flammability standard. The standard relies on smolder-resistant outer fabrics or barrier fabrics. Flame retardants would no longer be necessary. In the meantime, NHTSA has committed to reviewing the standard.
The blogger Natural Baby Mama launched an online petition for concerned parents to urge lawmaker support for the recently introduced legislation that—for the first time—would give parents the option to purchase car seats without chemical flame retardants.
Following our initial reports, the peer-reviewed bio-monitoring study that we participated in was published. While not specifically related to car seats, the study linked higher levels of chemicals in kids to “misguided flame retardant regulations.”
Additionally, a new study by the group that tipped us off to the issue in 2015 recently indicated a tipping point within the industry.
The Ecology Center’s semiannual car seat flame retardant report tests a variety of popular car seats for flame retardants. This year the study found, for the first time, that none of the car seat tested contained concerning chlorinated flame retardants with known health hazards or heavy metals like lead.
However, the study found almost all of the car seat still contain “concerning brominated flame retardants.” They all also contain phosphorus-based retardants which are believed to be “safer,” but researchers note that “health-safety data is lacking” and the “health effects of many of those substitutes are unknown.”
The study also cited findings from our investigation and highlighted the first-ever flame retardant-free car seat that is expected to hit the market next year.
UPPAbaby recently announced it plans to introduce a “naturally flame resistant” infant car seat in 2017. The Mesa Henry infant car seat is believed to be the first car seat on the market without added flame retardants.
However, due to the design changes and materials necessary to meet the current flammability regulations without added chemicals, the company says it will charge a premium. UPPABaby will make only one retardant-free model, available for infants only, and it will cost $350.
Notably, the top ranking car seats in the Ecology Center study are also expensive, ranging in price from $250- $450. Researchers noted that regulatory changes are needed to manufacture affordable and safe (chemically speaking) car seats.
Other notable industry updates:
Obit Baby stopped manufacturing car seats this year but still faces legal challenges due to the alleged false advertising highlighted in our reports. A 2016 Orbit Car seat that was tested by the Ecology Center received a “moderate ranking” and did not contain the concerning chemicals found in earlier models. Orbit continues to deny its car seats ever contained the chemicals in question.
We later found the same concerning chemicals in another “green” car seat, advertised to be free of the flame retardant. However, following the fallout from the Orbit investigation, as soon as we notified Clek of our findings, the company voluntarily recalled and replaced affected seats.
The Clek car seat also received a “moderate ranking” in the latest Ecology Center report.
Below you will find a detailed outline of our investigation, along with the documents and data cited.
PART 1: Chemicals In ‘Green’ Car Seats
This year-long investigation began with a consumer story after the non-profit Ecology Center found concerning chemical flame retardants in nearly 75 percent of the car seats tested.
Buried in the technical report was what appeared to be a glaring case of false advertising: The high-end “green” Orbit Baby car seat tested positive for a version of one of the most concerning flame retardant chemicals, Chlorinated Tris.
Orbit Baby was popular with chemical-conscious moms across the country and charged a premium because the company claimed it tested to ensure “below detection limits” of “dangerous flame retardant chemicals” including two versions of Chlorinated Tris, TCPP and TDCPP. The Ecology Center found TCPP in an Orbit car seat.
Following a NewsMom blog post about the findings, we utilized social media, online forums, blogs and message boards, to compile test results from parents across the country as well as a retailer who had all independently tested their Orbit car seats. Each tested positive for the even more concerning form of Tris, TDCPP.
TDCPP was removed from children’s pajamas in the 70’s, is listed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization and is on California’s list of known cancer-causing chemicals.
The initial probe revealed that several parents had informed Orbit Baby that their car seats tested positive for Tris a year before the Ecology Center study. Orbit Baby even agreed to buy back its remaining stock from a retailer, yet continued to deny the presence of the chemical and refused refunds to some concerned parents.
A national version of this KPIX story also aired on CBS This Morning.
As a result of our story, Orbit Baby began refunding additional concerned consumers and the company removed the flame retardant claims from its website.
Ultimately, the story established that even the “greenest” child car seat manufacturers have been unable to keep known ‘cancer-causing’ retardants out of their car seats.
Part 1 Documents:
PART 2: Apparent Legal Loophole
Orbit Baby continued to deny the presence of Chlorinated Tris in its products. Citing its own independent testing, the company questioned the accuracy of positive test results but refused to disclose the results of its own testing.
Public records then revealed the company knew for years that it’s car seats were testing positive for the chemicals.
According to these documents filed with the California Attorney General, the company was twice served with lawsuits in 2013 for Prop 65 violations after its car seats tested positive for TDCPP.
California’s “Prop 65” requires that any product with “chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm” come with a warning label at the time of purchase. TDCPP is one of those chemicals and the affected Orbit Baby car seats were not sold with a warning.
Despite the notices of violation in 2013, and the positive test results from parents and retailers in 2014 and 2015, Orbit did not remove the flame retardant-free claims from its website until December 2015, after we published the initial blog post.
When we questioned state regulators about a lack of enforcement, the probe exposed an apparent legal loophole that allows companies to keep consumers in the dark even after the manufacturers and retailers are served with violations for hazardous chemicals. The investigation revealed that because Orbit Baby settled both of its cases out of court, the plaintiffs were paid, but there was no legally binding court order that required Orbit refund, or even notify, other consumers who were still using affected car seats.
An exhaustive search of Prop 65 lawsuits then demonstrated a systemic issue. Nearly half of all the Prop 65 law suits filed the previous year were settled out of court. Like Orbit, those retailers and manufacturers of several car seat brands and hundreds of children’s products were never required to tell consumers that concerning chemicals were found in their products after they were sold. Orbit Baby was believed to be the only one of those companies that advertised that its products were free of the “dangerous chemicals.”
Because Orbit Baby publicly questioned the labs and methodologies that returned positive test results, we sought out additional testing at independent accredited laboratories. Using the same EPA testing methodologies that Orbit agreed to use as part of a 2014 Prop 65 settlement, three different labs ultimately confirmed that two additional Orbit car seats contained TDCPP.
It later came to our attention that the car seat manufacturer implied to concerned consumers that it did not add retardants, rather that our samples tested positive due to external contamination by other sources.
To clarify, both the Paradigm and STAT laboratories quantified the TDCPP in the Orbit car seats at 5-6% by weight. We cross-referenced those numbers with previous studies which found the average car seat, with retardants added during production, tested positive at 4-5% by weight.
The fact that our car seat samples contained similar amounts of retardants to other models previously tested refuted that argument. Additionally, several researchers as well as representatives from the chemical industry (ACC) confirmed that “cross contamination could happen at parts per million,” but not at “percent levels” like those found in our samples.
As a result of this story, the Center for Environmental Health filed another Prop 65 lawsuit against Orbit Baby, this time calling for a recall of the car seats. The nonprofit pledged to pursue a binding court-ordered judgment that requires Orbit to notify affected consumers.
The investigation later found TDCPP in car seats from another prominent “green” manufacturer, Clek. Like Orbit, that company advertised that its products were free of flame retardants like TDCPP. However, unlike Orbit, Clek immediately issued a voluntary recall when we notified the company of our positive test results.
Orbit Baby’s parent company later announced that it will no longer manufacture car seats to sell in the United States. The company is selling off its remaining stock at a discount but has pledged to honor all remaining warranties.
Part 2 Documents:
PART 3: Chemicals In Kids
After establishing that even “green” child car seats contain concerning flame retardants, and demonstrating that similar chemicals were found in a majority of the car seats tested, the investigation pivoted to examine how the chemicals in car seats may impact the children who use them.
Coincidentally, the reporter and her daughter were already participating in a biomonitoring study for an unrelated consumer story. She received the bio-monitoring results within days of discovering that her daughter’s Orbit car seat contained TDCPP. The joint study by Duke University and the Environmental Working Group found high levels of the flame retardant TDCPP in her 2-year old’s body.
After several years of reporting on flame retardants, Watts’ home was believed to be largely free of concerning retardants like TDCPP.
The reporter had replaced her couch cushions with retardant-free foam during an on-camera demonstration for a consumer story after California updated its furniture flammability standard. While pregnant, she reported on how to detect flame retardants in baby products and attempted to rid her home of flame-retardant foam. Additionally, her daughter did not attend preschool, so she was not regularly exposed to flame retardants outside of the home. The only known source of exposure to TDCPP was her daughter’s car seat.
However, to further investigate the link, the reporter commissioned a series of follow-up biomonitoring tests 24 hours and 10 days after her daughter’s last exposure to her car seat.
The average child in previous studies tested positive for TDCPP between 5-7 pbb (parts per billion). Watts’ child tested positive at 60.08 ppb while using the car seat. About 24 hours after the last exposure to the car seat, her daughter’s levels were 8.68 ppb.
The half-life of TDCPP is believed to be 8 hours (i.e. levels drop by 50 percent every eight hours). The child’s levels decreased at what would be the expected rate after 24 hours. They dropped further to 4.25 ppb 10 days later indicating that no other external sources in the home were significantly contributing to the exposure.
In a statement, Orbit Baby said, “Since there are so many products and places where people, especially children, can be exposed to various chemicals, it is difficult to definitively link the presence of a particular substance to a specific source.”
Because it is unethical to intentionally expose a child to a hazardous chemical for the purpose of study, Watts’ daughter provided a unique example of a possible link between flame retardants in car seats and in the children who use them, though previous studies had similarly linked retardants in furniture to high levels in babies and breastmilk.
The peer-reviewed bio-monitoring study, for which Watts and her daughter had submitted bio-specimen samples, was published months later. It was unrelated to car seats. However, the study ultimately linked higher levels of flame retardants in kids to “misguided regulations” that encourage adding chemicals to consumer goods.
While it is not possible to entirely eliminate exposure, toxicologists say that reducing exposure can reduce the risk. In an effort to temper panic, we’ve compiled a list of resources for parents, including simple steps to help reduce kids’ exposure to concerning chemicals in their car seats.
PART 4: Benefit Vs. Risk
In light of these findings, we set out to answer two important questions: Why are flame retardants in car seats? Is the benefit worth the risk?
For the final investigation, we requested public records and data from more than a dozen applicable federal agencies and industry groups.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ultimately confirmed that the efficacy of its 44-year-old federal flammability standard had never been tested in relation to child car seats.
For background, the regulation requires anything manufactured for the interior of a vehicle, including a child’s car seat, to meet the federal motor vehicle flammability standard (FMVSS 302) that was introduced in 1972. Car seats were not common, or even required, until a decade later.
Parents now commonly use car seats outside of the car as stroller seats and places to sleep, which experts say needlessly extends exposure to the flame retardants. In addition, toxicologists warn that children are more susceptible to the harmful effects of these chemicals and are more likely to ingest them due to normal kid behavior, like thumb sucking.
The federal test requires each individual component of a car seat (foam, fabric, plastic, etc.) be individually exposed to a 1.5 inch flame. While some exterior and barrier fabrics can pass the test without added flame retardants, manufacturers say they must add chemical flame retardants to the foam padding inside the seat in order to pass the test.
Fire scientists contend that the current flame-spread test, and the flame retardants added to car seats to pass it, is irrelevant for real-world fire safety unless a car fire is ignited by a small flame applied directly to a child’s car seat. They argue that flames from a fire ignited anywhere else would be too big by the time they reached the child for retardants inside their seat to be effective.
While NHTSA said it “believes the standard has served to save many children,” the agency admitted that it did not have any records, data or studies that indicate the flammability standard provides a safety benefit in car seats.
In fact, no federal agency or industry group was able to provide any evidence that flame retardants provide a safety benefit in car seats.
However, we uncovered studies and data that indicate the standard, and flame retardants used to meet it, is not relevant to fire safety in modern-day car fires.
An analysis of nationwide car fire data further demonstrated that regulators were citing misleading car fire statistics in an effort to defend the standard.
Referencing data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to both KPIX and a congressional committee, NHTSA defended the standard by noting that “about 194,000 car fires occur annually, resulting in more than 200 deaths, about 20 of them children.” However, a review of that data revealed the statistics included car fires that were intentionally set as well as fires in freight and construction vehicles. It is unlikely that car seats were used in those vehicles or that the car seat standard was relevant to those fires.
Furthermore, fire scientists say that the federal standard, and flame retardants added to pass the mandated test, are only relevant in fires that are first ignited in upholstered material.
Cross-referencing that data, with additional NFPA data obtained by KPIX, revealed that only 3 percent of all car fires were first ignited in upholstered material, and are therefore relevant to the current standard. Data indicates that those fires result in fewer than three deaths per year, not necessarily children.
To further gauge the effectiveness of the federally mandated flammability test for car seats, KPIX did what the regulators had not: We commissioned a combustion test at a federal laboratory.
Prior to the test, we once again utilized social media, online forums, blogs and message boards, this time to collect after-market car seat covers without flame retardants that chemical-conscious parents had made or purchased from other parents.
When ignited side by side, the car seat sample without flame retardants that did not meet the federal standard performed as well, if not better, than those with flame retardants that did meet the standard. Under the current federal regulations, it would be illegal for manufacturers to sell the aftermarket product without flame retardants.
We eventually shared our findings with more than 60 lawmakers who have direct oversight of NHTSA and created an online resource for parents. It outlines congressional oversight of the issue and includes responses from relevant lawmakers and congressional committees.
Part 4 Documents:
In the wake of the investigation, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA 2nd District) commissioned a congressional research report on flame retardants in car seats. He subsequently introduced legislation that would require NHTSA to update its flammability standard for car seats so that flame retardants would no longer be necessary.
The bill was introduced into the House Commerce Committee. Members of the committee questioned NHTSA about the standard after reviewing the findings of this investigation.
Senate Commerce Committee member Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) questioned Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx about the standard at a recent Department of Transportation hearing. She also requested a separate NHTSA hearing, specifically focused on flame retardants in car seats. In the interim, Ayotte and Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) sent a joint letter to the NHTSA Administrator with follow-up questions.
The investigation also recently prompted a change.org petition from concerned parents who are calling on lawmakers to take immediate action.
When KPIX first questioned NHTSA about flame retardants in car seats, the agency said it was “considering research plans to better understand and evaluate the issues.” The agency has now committed to “initiating research in 2016” that will focus specifically on “flame retardants for child restraints.”
Additionally, the Center for Environmental Health is moving forward with its Prop 65 lawsuit against Orbit Baby. The lawsuit seeks to force the company to notify consumers about the TDCPP found in car seats that were advertised to be free of the chemicals. The nonprofit hopes to set a precedent that will close the aforementioned apparent loophole in state law.
We are also making plans with UPPABaby to test its anticipated flame-retardant-free car seat in 2017. Researchers at both Duke University and the Ecology Center have tested the materials for chemical flame retardants. The company has now agreed to let us put its “naturally flame resistant” materials to a combustion test, similar to the one we performed last year. Stay tuned!
Still have questions?
To understand the issue of flame retardants in car seats, it helps to have a basic understanding of the history of the chemicals in products, the industry influence and the potential harm. This NewsMom resource includes a brief summary of the proliferation flame retardants and background information on our investigation. It also provides additional evidence, industry responses and a summary of suggested solutions.
Use the quick-links below to navigate directly to a specific topic of interest.