Safe Seats

Thursday, July 9, 2015

As parents we spend hours researching options when considering the purchase of a new car seat, one of the most important and well-used tools in keeping our little loved ones safe. We consider price, functionality, color, size, softness, etc. Most of us, however, never dream that we have to consider if the product is hazardous or not.

Toxic Seats, a program of the Ecology Center, recently released their 2015 Car Seat Study. Hidden Passengers: Chemical Hazards in Children's Car Seats is their fifth such report since 2006 testing for potentially toxic chemicals, particularly flame retardants.  Once again the majority of car seats (73%) tested contained hazardous flame retardants. Research Director, Jeff Gearhart, is quick to point out, “Car seats save lives. It’s absolutely essential that parents put their children in them while driving, regardless of the rating a particular seat received at However, our research shows that some car seats contain more harmful chemicals than others.”

The other chemicals of concern showing up in car seats include polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and phthalate plasticizers. The health risks associated with the detected chemicals range from endocrine disruption (alteration of the hormone system) to cognitive impairments and cancer. Surprisingly, flame retardants, in particular, are not chemically bound to the fabric, foam, or plastic in which they are found. The chemicals release over time. Meanwhile, our children are strapped in—perhaps wearing as little as a diaper on hot days—where they may inhale, ingest, and/or absorb the offgassing chemicals.

Children actually breathe more air, and eat and drink more food and water (pound for pound) as compared to adults. This, coupled with the fact that children’s bodies are still developing, causes children to be more highly exposed and especially vulnerable to the potentially harmful effects of flame retardants.

Unnecessary Risk?

Additionally, states, “…analyses of real-world vehicle fire scenarios suggest that flame retardant chemicals in car seats are unlikely to keep a child safer in a fire. The speed with which an engine fire fills the cabin with smoke and then flames, coupled with typical emergency response times, can make the brief delay in ignition from chemical flame retardants inadequate.” They urge car manufacturers to re-design certain parts of vehicles to reduce fire hazards instead of adding more chemicals.

Best Brands

What is a concerned parent to do? For starters, check the report and its ratings to see where your favorite brands rank. The boosters and car seats manufactured by Britax and Clek and tested by were rated as “lowest concern.” These two companies, according, “…have been proactively implementing policies to reduce hazards in their products while still meeting all safety standards.” Unfortunately, the widely available brand, Graco, performed the worst with multiple products rated as “high concern.”

Many brands appear in between the two polars of lowest and highest concern. As an expecting mom I was quick to look for Baby Trend, the brand of our new infant car seat and travel system…and worried to find a score of 4.7 (‘5’ being of highest concern) next to the brand name (although for a different product).  Should I exchange the new product for another? Britax and Clek brands rank lowest on the hazard scale, but they also rank very high as far as cost, taking them out of the equation for me.

I turned to Dr. Gillian Miller, staff scientist for the Ecology Center and, asking her if I should I exchange my Baby Trend (4.7 rating) product for a Safety 1st or Chicco product (whose car seats rated 3.6 and are cost comparative).

Dr. Miller responded, “My feeling is the differences in the ratings between the brands you mentioned are not all that big. Also, different models could indeed have different added chemicals. If it were me, I'd buy a slip cover for the seat. I'd like having the additional fabric layer between my babe's face and the original seat fabric. And it would be way easier to remove for laundering.”

Thanks, Gillian! I don’t have to return the car seat. But, now I’m off to Etsy to dedicate a few more hours of research on fitted slip covers. Is it made out of natural materials?  How long will it take to have it shipped? Will it fit the car seat I own?.....

More Tips from

Here’s their advice regarding car seats and the car environment as a whole—because every surface and material in the car itself is likely coated or infused with flame retardant chemicals.

  • CONTACT THE CAR SEAT COMPANIES. Let them know you expect them to manufacture products without toxic chemicals, which threaten the health of our children and natural resources. Car seat companies need to hear from people like you. They need to know we are tired of toxic chemicals being added to our children’s products, and demand safer, healthier options.
  • LIMIT THE TIME YOUR CHILDREN SPEND IN THEIR CAR SEATS. Only use the car seat during travel, not as a place for your child to nap or sit outside of the car.
  • LIMIT DIRECT SUNLIGHT ON THE CAR SEAT and high temperatures in your car. Flame retardants and other hazardous chemicals may be released at a higher rate when your car becomes hot. When possible, park in the shade or in covered parking. Window coverings in a car also substantially lower the interior temperature on a warm day.
  • VACUUM THE CAR INTERIOR AND THE NOOKS AND CRANNIES OF CAR SEATS. Chemicals that migrate out, including flame retardants, can cling to dust particles. Open the car windows when possible.

To read more about the study and to view the full methodology, results, and rankings, visit

Listen to Dr. Gillian Miller, Ecology Center Staff Scientist, discuss the report on Michigan Radio.


Published on July 9, 2015