Ask Eartha: Flame retardants and parental pajama panic
August 28, 2014
I'm a new mom and have heard that kids' pajamas contain flame retardant. Is that true?
— Susan, Silverthorn
Great question, Susan. Yes, it's true that children's sleepwear has to meet flammability standards in the United States. Pajamas sized between 9 months and size 14 years must either pass flammability tests or be tight fitting, based on strict dimensions. The law was created to prevent children from being injured if their pajamas come in contact with a candle or lighter.
As a parent, I've often wondered about the flame retardants in pajamas and other baby products like mattresses and changing pads. Here's a little history, compliments of sixclasses.org. Thought to make children safer from fire, brominated tris retardants were used in children's sleepwear in the 1970s until they were deemed mutagens and banned. Next, chlorinated tris, or TDCPP, was added to children's pajamas and used until 2012. TDCPP is an organophosphate still found in polyurethane foam and upholstery and is a known carcinogen. Currently, hydroxymethyl phosphonium chlorides are used as flame retardants, with trade names like Proban and Securest. The good news is that this newer class of flame retardants tends to migrate less from pajamas onto skin and other household items than did TDCPPs.
Most flame-retardant chemicals are persistent and accumulate in both the environment and our bodies. Studies have shown that organohalogen flame retardants are found in almost all Americans tested, with the highest levels found in small children. Flame-retardant levels are found in much higher levels in U.S. citizens than their European counterparts, likely because European laws prohibit the use of many flame retardants still used in the U.S.
So do fire retardants in pajamas and other household products reduce fire deaths? Unfortunately, no, according to an article published on the International Association for Fire Safety Science's website. Although fire retardants delay ignition, retardant-laden pajamas and other products still burn and can produce the toxic gases that cause many fire injuries and deaths.
In fact, materials with flame retardants produce dioxins and furans, which are much more toxic than the fumes released from ordinary material burning.
Although many people assume that any potentially hazardous flame retardants would be restricted from use in consumer products, it's not quite that simple. In the U.S., only chemicals added to food, drugs and pesticides are regulated by federal law. You may now be wondering what we can do as parents to avoid flame retardants in our kids' pajamas.
Fortunately, tight-fitting pajamas typically don't contain flame retardants. This means that parents can easily avoid flame retardants by simply reading pajama clothing labels. The Consumer Product Safety Commission requires non-flame-resistant sleepwear to read "For child's safety, garment should fit snugly. This garment is not flame resistant. Loose-fitting garments are more likely to catch fire." The only downside is that most of the warm, fleecy pajamas that are perfect here in the High Country tend to be off-limits, since they typically contain retardants.
You can also contact your U.S. senators and representatives. In Summit County, we're represented by Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, along with U.S. Rep. Jared Polis.
In California, TB 117-2013 is the state's flame-retardant law that excludes many children's products (though not pajamas) from containing flame retardants. We need to push for standards at the federal level that reduce flame retardants and other hazardous chemicals in our kids' products.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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