Toxic flame retardant chemicals were found in 100 percent of preschools and day cares tested in a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of California-Berkeley and published in the journal Chemosphere on May 15.
“These findings underscore how widespread these materials are in indoor environments,” researcher Asa Bradman said. “A growing body of research has found links between flame retardants and a range of human health effects, including neurodevelopmental delays in children. Children are more vulnerable to the health effects of environmental contaminants, so we should be particularly careful to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals.”
Dangerous hormone disruptors
After California passed a law in the 1970s requiring a wide array of products to meet incredibly strict anti-flammability standards, manufacturers nationwide began putting flame retardant chemicals in nearly every consumer product, from furniture to electronics. In particular, a class of chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) became ubiquitous in the foam of upholstered furniture.
California eventually banned PBDEs in 2006, after evidence emerged linking them to hormone disruption and neurodevelopmental toxicity. The chemicals are still used in many other states, though they have been banned in the European Union.
Because of California’s strict standards, PBDEs were widely replaced with another class of chemicals called chlorinated tris phosphates, even though these were banned from children’s pajamas back in 1977 due to findings that they caused DNA mutations. The state of California now classifies chlorinated tris as a carcinogen.
Numerous studies have found flame retardants in the dust of nearly every household tested, and in the bodies of nearly every person. In the new study, researchers took dust samples from the air and floors of 40 child care centers in Alameda and Monterey Counties in California, and tested them for PBDEs and tris phosphates. They found both chemicals in every single sample (100 percent).
Those particular counties were selected because they offered a mix of preschools and day care centers in urban, rural and agricultural areas.
The levels of PBDEs found in the child care centers were slightly lower than those previously found inside residences, but the levels of chlorinated tris were equivalent to or higher than residential levels. According to Bradman, tris levels were probably higher because the chemicals are used in the foam mats that children nap on.
Seventeen of the 40 centers tested had foam napping equipment, and 29 had upholstered furniture.
Reduce your exposure
The study provides yet more evidence that flame retardants “are everywhere,” Bradman said.
“Child care environments are not unlike homes and other places where kids spend time, but there has been very little research done on these environments,” he said.
But there is good news: At the beginning of 2014, California implemented new flammability standards that only require upholstered furniture fabric to resist smoldering (such as from a dropped cigarette), rather than withstand an open flame. This is considered a more realistic fire-prevention measure that allows the use of flame-resistant materials without the use of retardant chemicals. The new rules are expected to make non-toxic alternatives more widely available.
“The new standard is not a ban on flame retardants, but manufacturers can meet it without using chemicals,” said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. “Most upholstered fabrics, such as leather, are already smolder-proof. Consumers should verify that the furniture they are buying is free of flame retardants, especially when children will be exposed.”
Some child care centers already use alternative products, and more are expected to adopt them as they become less expensive.
“Child care professionals are really idealistic and would do anything for the children they’re taking care of,” said Ellen Dektar, senior management analyst with Alameda County’s Early Care and Education Planning Council.
Sources for this article include: