Turns out you can make a naturally flame resistant car seat that passes the federal flammability standard without retardants. The first batch of UPPAbaby Flame-Retardant-Free Car Seats shipped to stores this month.
For years manufactures have argued that they have to add chemical flame retardants to car seats in order to meet the federal flammability standard. Heck, even UPPAbaby said that for a while. But then persistent and passionate parents wore the car seat manufacturer down – prompting UPPAbaby to try something that had never been done.
Understandably, when the manufacturer first announced it was developing a car seat without added flame retardants, some parents on social media were skeptical. After all, many car seat manufacturers have made similar claims, and as we’ve discovered, they simply were not true.
Long Facebook threads almost immediately began popping up when the new UPPAbaby Mesa Henry was announced at a trade show. Moms in the Facebook groups I belong to wanted answers to their very specific questions.
A Social Experiment
Right about the same time, an incredibly talented graphic artist at our station, NewsMom-to-be Ashley Cosmi, came up with an idea for a social media experiment. She suggested featuring real-time social media interaction and comments in one of our actual news reports by shooting part of the investigation live on Facebook. But we needed the “right kind” of story.
My first reaction was, “Darn, our Toxic Safety Car Seat Flame Retardant investigation would have been perfect!” The year-long series was largely driven by parents on social media and followers on this blog.
Then I thought about all the unanswered questions those moms had about the new UPPAbaby car seat, and it occurred to me that we could answer those questions in a unique and interactive way by bringing viewers behind the scenes. So, we invited them to participate in our investigation in real time, via Facebook LIVE, as we researched the company’s claims.
Facebook LIVE: Car Seat Combustion Demonstration
Facebook LIVE: Q & A With UPPAbaby Co-Founder
To its credit, UPPAbaby agreed to let us to ignite its new car seat live on Facebook. That took a lot of courage and trust on their part. We convinced them it was important demonstrate how UPPA’s new car seat can pass the required flammability test without retardants while others cannot.
It also took guts for UPPAbaby’s co-founder to agree to sit down for a Facebook LIVE interview where he knew he would be fielding unscripted questions from parents across the country. He also had to sit across from me – an investigative reporter/mom who’s been burned twice (pun intended) by misleading flame retardant claims from car seat companies.
Passionate Parents Prompt Change
For years, many parents have been frustrated that they couldn’t buy a car seat without retardants.
“They were angry at us, they were angry at everybody. It really kind of bothered me for a while,” UPPAbaby Co-founder Bob Monahan explained to our FavebookLIVE audience. “So, we challenged our R & D department, like, ‘Make a fire retardant-free car seat. Show me what it looks like. Show me what it costs. And maybe we can sell it.’”
He said UPPAbaby spent the next year developing its new Merino Wool fabric which is specially woven to naturally resist flames. Not all wool is flame resistant.
“The weave makes a difference.” He said many of the wool materials that they tested during development didn’t pass the test. “If it’s a brushed surface, it has lose fabrics, that’s more likely to burn.”
Once they came up with a naturally flame resistant fabric, UPPAbaby laminated the fabric to the outside of the foam padding, enabling its car seat to pass the test without retardants.
How UPPA Passes the Test
“The requirements are not to add the flame retardants, but you have to meet a performance standard,” combustion Scientist Don Lucas explained during our Facebook LIVE combustion demo.
He demonstrated the federal test, which requires a one-and-a-half-inch flame be applied to the outside of each material. The burn rate is then calculated by timing how fast the flame spreads across a small sample.
The testing procedures require each car seat material be individually ignited. In most car seats, that means they must ignite the fabric by itself and the foam by itself. Manufactures say the foam used in car seats generally cannot pass the test without retardants.
However, instead of adding retardants to the foam padding like many other manufactures, UPPAbaby laminated its naturally flame resistant fabric to the outside of the foam, allowing UPPA to test the foam and fabric together as one single material.
Instead of applying the flame to the naked foam, in the UPPAbaby it’s applied to the naturally flame resistant fabric on the outside of the foam. The material slows the flame allowing the sample to passes the test.
A couple of other high-end car seat manufacturers also laminate their fabric to the foam. However, instead of using naturally flame resistant fabric like UPPA, those other manufacturers told me that they add flame retardants to the fabric to pass the test.
For now, Uppa is the only known car seat to meet the federal standard without any flame retardants at all. However, Monahan notes that the fabric is not proprietary so he believes others can, and eventually will, follow suit.
UPPA Q & A
Has the Mesa Henry been tested for retardants?
Before announcing its new retardant-free car seat, UPPA sent the Mesa Henry to independent researchers at both the Ecology Center and Duke University for testing. Neither found flame retardants. We have not independently tested an UPPA Mesa Henry for flame retardants yet. I’ve been waiting until the car seats are available to the public so we can purchase one to test from an independent retailer.
Are all UPPAbaby car seats flame-retardant free?
No. Only its new Mesa Henry has the flame-retardant free fabric. And it is important to note that the Mesa is an infant car seat. The company doesn’t currently manufacture any convertible seats, however it hinted during the interview that one “may” be in development.
How much does it cost?
The Mesa Henry costs about $350, which is a $50 premium compared to UPPA’s other car seats and many of its high-end competitors.
What do I do about the chemicals in my child’s current car seat?
If you’re concerned about the retardants in your current car seat, experts suggests vacuuming it often, washing your child’s hands when they get out of the car and, they stress, don’t use the car seat outside of the car as a stroller seat or for sleeping in the home.
You can also check out this NewsMom resource for more info: Car Seat Chemicals: Resources for Parents
But remember, car seats are critical to keeping kids safe in the car and they are required by law.
The Back Story: Why It Matters
This collaboration between viewers and our consumer-investigative team marked the culmination of a year-long car seat flame retardant investigation that was driven, in part, by passionate parents who watched our reports online.
Toxic Safety: Car Seat Flame Retardant Investigation
For a summary of the year-long investigation along with links and resources
Our car seat investigation originated with a NewsMom blog post after a 2015 Ecology Center study found concerning flame retardant chemicals in 75 percent of the car seats tested. That led to a KPIX consumer story about alleged false advertising which caught the attention of passionate parents nationwide.
Then, using NewsMom and other relevant online communities, we mined social media to solicit car seat flame retardant test results from parents across the country.
I have to give a shout out to the popular “green parenting” blogger Natural Baby Mama. Her blog and the moms in her social media community were passionate contributors to this investigation. Many of them agreed to let me use their comments and data in our reports.
Their test results, along with our own independent lab tests, revealed that that even the “greenest” car seat manufactures couldn’t keep known cancer-causing retardants out of car seats despite their advertised claims.
Their car seat foam samples repeatedly tested positive for (TDCPP). That retardant, also known as Chlorniated Tris, 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.
The data collected from parents helped to further demonstrate a systemic issue while their questions and concerns helped to move the investigation forward.
Next, the investigation turned to biomonitoring to examine how the chemicals might impact children.
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. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have found these chemicals inside children who are exposed to them.
So, we commissioned Biomonitoing tests of our own. They revealed an apparent link between the chemical retardant in my daughter’s car seat and the same chemical in her body. The levels of the flame retardant in my daughter’s system dropped dramatically after removing just one variable from her environment – her car seat.
Finally, the investigation pivoted to examine the benefit of flame retardants in children’s car seats, which are used to meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Flammability Standard.
The test was developed in the 70’s to address fires that start inside the car, especially “from sources such as matches or cigarettes.” Car seats became mandatory years later and must now pass the same test.
Fire scientists, health advocates and car seat manufactures argue that the 45-year-old federal flammability standard, and retardants added to meet it, does not provide a significant safety benefit in a child’s car seat.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) disagrees, stating, “We believe the [flammability] standard has served to save many children.” However, when questioned last year for the KPIX investigation, NHTSA admitted it never actually tested the standard in car seats and has no evidence of a safety benefit in real-world fires.
When we discovered NHTSA hadn’t preformed combustion tests, we began collecting homemade car seat covers from chemical conscious moms we found on Facebook. The covers, purchased on ETSY, had been made without flame retardants and would not meet the federal standard.
However, in a side-by-side combustion test that we commissioned at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a homemade car seat cover without retardants performed as well as, if not better than, one with the chemicals.
Consumer advocates and manufactures stress that regulatory changes are needed to create an affordable flame retardant free option for every child. Notably, the top ranking car seats in the Ecology Center’s recent 2016 car seat flame retardant study ranged in price from $250- $450.
The study notes the following three main points:
“Flame retardants are still widespread – Aside from the UPPAbaby seat, FRs were found in all of the car seats that were tested, and for the first time were found to be in widespread use in the fabrics of car seats.”
“Most car seats still contain brominated flame retardants (BFRs) — This is concerning, as brominated chemicals are typically persistent, bioaccumulative, and often toxic.”
“Alternatives to BFRs have not been tested for toxicity — Manufacturers have stopped using some flame retardants with known hazards, but the health effects of many of the substitutes are unknown.”
The Ecology Center is encouraging lawmakers to exempt child seats from the federal flammability standard and notes NHTSA “can provide no evidence suggesting that the rule protects children in vehicle fires.”
Congressman Jared Huffman introduced legislation last year that could lead to affordable flame retardant free-car seats. It’s intended to force NHTSA to revise its standard, enabling manufacturers to more easily meet the federal standard without retardants while still maintaining fire safety. However, the legislation has not seen much movement since it was introduced.
The blogger Natural Baby Mama launched an online change.org petition to urge lawmaker support for legislation.
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 while Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) questions whether the flame retardants are necessary for safety in child car seats.
Meanwhile, leading fire scientists insist that the flammability standard in car seats is largely irrelevant to fire safety in a real-world car fire as it’s intended to address a 1.5 inch flame. They note that retardants inside the child’s car seat would do little to protect children from real-world car fire flames.
NHTSA has begun a “two-year research program to evaluate potential improvements” to the standard. When asked for an update on that work, the agency provided KPIX with the following statement:
“At the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, safety is the highest priority, particularly the safety of children. With 200,000 vehicle fires every year, federal safety standards for car seats are designed to both protect kids in crashes and allow time to get them out of burning vehicles. NHTSA reminds parents that the safest way for a child to travel in a vehicle is in a properly used car seat– every trip, every time.”
Health advocates tell me they’re concerned that the agency’s research program could potentially lead to stricter flammability standards and more retardants in vehicles as well as child seats.
The American Chemistry Council tells KPIX, “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.”
NHTSA’s final report on improvements to the standard is expected in June of 2018. It is not clear when, or if, the outcome would impact car seat manufacturers.