Affordable U.S. child car seats have more flame retardant chemicals than similar European car seats
More than 40 U.S. models without added chemical hazards are available, but affordability remains a challenge.
April 13, 2022
[Ann Arbor, MI] The Ecology Center published a new report, Toxic Inequities; How an Outdated Standard Leads to Toxics in Low-Cost Children's Car Seats, indicating an upward trend in the number of car seats free of flame retardants and per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), but many are still cost-prohibitive due to an antiquated U.S. flammability standard. A broad coalition of manufacturers, labor and environmental groups are calling for the U.S. Department of Transportation to fix the standard.
In their 2022 study, the Ecology Center’s Healthy Stuff Lab tested 25 car seats, including three from the European Union, from 11 different brands for flame retardants and PFAS. Four of the car seats came bundled with matching strollers, which were also tested. The Ecology Center has been conducting extensive testing on car seats since 2006 to test for chemicals of concern. Their recent findings are based on the Ecology Center’s independent testing and a comprehensive review of manufacturer claims.
U.S. car seat companies have made significant achievements in reducing children’s exposure to toxic chemicals in the last five years. In 2016 there were no flame retardant-free children’s car seats available. Today there are over 40 such models from eight different brands.
“We are encouraged that so many companies have voluntarily made car seats without flame retardants, but the most affordable car seats still contain these chemicals, pointing to the need to update federal guidelines,” said the Ecology Center’s Senior Scientist Gillian Miller, PhD.
Companies add flame retardants to car seats as a cost-effective way to meet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) outdated flammability standard which was created in 1969 largely in response to fires started by cigarettes.
Federal regulators have not been able to show a meaningful safety benefit from requiring compliance with the federal flammability standard. The Ecology Center and the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA), along with 38 other car seat manufacturers, firefighters, child safety advocates, and public health groups sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation calling on the department to update NHTSA's federal flammability standards. The Ecology Center has started a petition on change.org urging NSHTA to take appropriate government action.
"In my 40 years on the Boston Fire Department, I have responded to hundreds of car fires and hundreds of vehicle accidents. In my experience, supported by statistics, vehicle fires seldom are started by cigarettes, and seldom start in seating material. Putting flame retardants in seating would appear to provide no meaningful safety benefit to an occupant and we are unnecessarily exposing children and firefighters to hazards," stated Joseph (Jay) Fleming, member of the Boston Fire Department and Boston Local 718 for more than 40 years, including 25 years as a Deputy Chief and 18 years as a Field Deputy.
Maxi-Cosi is one car seat company that has risen to the challenge of innovating flame retardant-free car seats and offers the most affordable convertible car seat on the market. “Maxi-Cosi PureCosi Car Seats are able to meet the flammability standard through the use of premium fabrics and higher density foams. These materials are more costly than those that meet with flame retardant additives,” said Tim Edwards, Senior Manager of Lab and Regulatory Compliance for the Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc, the producer of Maxi-Cosi car seats. “Lower price point car seat brands would be challenged to maintain their competitive position with the use of those premium materials.”
There are currently no infant or convertible car seats sold in the U.S. selling for less than $120 that are both flame retardant-free and PFAS-free. The report concludes that parents and families looking for the most affordable children’s products are largely bearing the brunt of toxic chemical exposure.
"Parents shouldn't have to strap their child into a car seat that exposes them to toxic chemicals," said Arlene Blum, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "Car seats are critical for child safety, which makes this health inequity especially problematic. It's urgent that the Transportation Department update the ineffective standard that causes this problem."
Most flame retardant chemicals used in car seats are not strongly bound to the fabric or foam, so they easily migrate out and build up in air and dust. Kids are exposed to flame retardants just by breathing, or through hand-to-mouth contact. Despite the risks, the majority of all car seats available for purchase in the U.S. contain fire retardants.
Four of the tested U.S. seats were found to contain likely PFAS, chemicals added to make the seat pad resistant to water and stains. The Ecology Center urges all companies to eliminate PFAS from their products.
Until the standard is updated, the Ecology Center is calling on car seat manufacturers to innovate more affordable flame retardant-free seats and do their part to ensure these car seats are available for all children.
Ecology Center’s 2022 car seat report highlights:
- FR-free options are plentiful, if families can afford them.
- An outdated U.S. federal flammability standard is unnecessarily exposing children from lower income families to hazardous chemicals.
- European Union child car seats have fewer flame retardants than U.S. seats due to a different flammability standard.
- Strollers don’t have flame retardants, yet identical fabrics in matching car seats do.
- 3 companies offer the least expensive flame retardant-free car seats: Maxi-Cosi (Pure Cosi), Britax (SafeWash), and Chicco (ClearTex).
- 3 major companies have yet to release a flame retardant-free seat and still contain PFAS: Graco, Evenflo, and Baby Trend, which market some of the most affordable and popular children’s car seats.
- Some car seats and strollers use PFAS for water and stain resistance.
- All companies included in this report offer at least one PFAS-free car seat model, although most don’t advertise the seats as PFAS-free, making it difficult for consumers to identify.
The Ecology Center reminds parents that child car seats are required by law and are absolutely essential for crash safety. Please, always install and use a car seat for a child, regardless of any chemical concerns.