Examining the history of consumer protections and clothing
November 16, 2017
As a mom, I'm curious how chemical safety decisions are made in the U.S. For instance, why are flame retardants found in kids' pajamas?
Great question, Shelley. In the U.S., chemicals used in consumer goods are regulated by the Toxic Substances Control Act. Passed in 1976, this law gives the EPA the authority to evaluate the safety of chemicals added to products like clothing, carpeting or furniture. Food, drugs and pesticides are regulated by the FDA and have stricter regulations. In 2016, the Toxic Substances Control Act was overhauled by Congress with bipartisan support. The updated law ensures that newly developed chemicals are evaluated solely upon health and safety risks, and not based on financial considerations.
Unfortunately, under the Trump administration, the EPA is in the process of dismantling the consumer protections gained in 2016. In 2017, Trump appointed Dr. Nancy Beck as a top deputy in the EPA's toxic chemical unit. Prior to joining the EPA, Beck was an executive at the American Chemistry Council, which includes members like Dupont, Dow and Monsanto. Beck has led the charge to make it more difficult to track health consequences of chemicals, effectively making chemicals harder to regulate. The rewriting of these regulations has alarmed scientists and EPA administrators who have been working to protect consumers through ensuring thorough evaluation of scientific studies.
Now back to your question about kids' pajamas. By law children's sleepwear must meet flammability standards in the United States. Pajamas sized between 10 months and 14 years have to either pass specific flammability tests or be tight fitting based on strict dimensions.
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There's a long history of how these chemicals ended up in kids' pajamas, crib pads and car seats. Back in the 1940s, children's clothing was often made from rayon, a very flammable fabric, which led to a rash of injuries and deaths. As a result, the 1953 Flammable Fabrics Act was passed to prevent children from being injured if their pajamas come in contact with a candle or lighter.
Brominated tris retardants were used in children's sleepwear until the 1970s when they were found to mutate DNA and subsequently banned. Next, chlorinated tris (TDCPP) chemicals were added to children's pajamas and used until 2012. TDCPP, a known carcinogen, is still found in polyurethane foam and upholstery. Currently, hydroxymethyl phosphonium chlorides are used as flame retardants, with trade names like Proban and Securest. Time for some good news, right? This newer class of flame retardants tends to migrate less from pajamas onto skin and other household items than TDCPPs.
Most flame-retardant chemicals are persistent and accumulate in both the environment and our bodies. Studies have shown that flame retardants are found in the urine of 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.
Experts disagree on whether flame retardants in sleepwear have reduced injuries or deaths. Although fire retardants delay a fire starting, retardant-laden pajamas and other products still burn and produce toxic gases that cause fire injuries and deaths. In fact, materials with flame retardants produce dioxins and furans, which are extremely toxic. Instead of wearing fire-retardant doused PJs, making sure that your fire alarms are working properly is probably the most important thing you can do to keep your family safe.
In 1996 the Consumer Product Safety Commission created a loophole that allows sleepwear to omit flame retardants as long as the clothing is tight fitting. Non flame-resistant sleepwear is required to have tags that note that the garment is not flame resistant. Most of the non-chemical sleepwear is 100 percent cotton, which means that the warm, fleecy pajamas that are perfect here in the High Country typically contain retardants.
So what should we do as consumers to protect ourselves from harmful chemicals? Unfortunately, all decisions aren't as easy as selecting cotton pajamas. We need to continually educate ourselves by doing research on products that we purchase. The Environmental Working Group is one resource that offers ratings and information on consumer products. And although the current federal administration sometimes seems stacked against protecting consumers, it's always worth contacting your congressional representatives and asking them to enact stronger protections on chemicals in consumer 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 email@example.com.
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