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Special Report: Flame Retardants

What you need to know about these toxic chemicals—that don’t wash out

We’ve been hearing a lot about chemical flame retardants lately—and the fact that they’re pretty much everywhere. A recent study even found them in nap mats sold at major baby retailers. Which is too bad, since they’ve been linked to everything from cancer, genetic damage, and hormone disruption to allergies. So we chatted with our Eco Expert, Honest Company co-founder (and the former CEO of Healthy Child, Healthy World) Christopher Gavigan, about how pervasive they really are—and if there’s anything we can do about them.
 
StrollerTraffic: Are toxic flame retardants really as omnipresent as the media has been indicating?
Christopher Gavigan: Unfortunately, flame retardants are nearly ubiquitous in our homes. They’re used in couches, computers, carpets, mattresses, home insulation, television sets, and even the foam padding used on baby gear.
 

ST: Yikes. How do we find out if a specific item does, indeed, contain toxic flame retardants?
CG: Flame retardants aren’t typically listed on product labels, so you really need to ask the manufacturer directly. Avoid anything that uses brominated or chlorinated flame retardants (which encompasses a very large number of specific chemical formulations).
 
ST: So what should we do if we find out we have lots of stuff with flame retardants? Do we throw everything away?
CG: The key items you should prioritize are those that your baby will be using or frequently exposed to.
 
ST: We know many of the organic-leaning baby companies don’t use toxic flame retardants (though it’s still worth asking), but are there any mainstream companies that don’t use toxic flame retardants?
CG: There are some. For example, Orbit and Britax have both committed to stop using hazardous flame retardants. And Graco has committed to phasing out the four worst flame retardants, but we don’t yet know what they’re replacing them with.
 
ST: Is there anything parents can do to minimize flame retardant exposure, especially if replacing every piece of furniture isn’t a viable option?
CG: Quite simply, keep dust levels down. Flame retardants escape from products and end up sticking to household dust; then we’re exposed to them by inhaling the dust and from hand-to-mouth activity. Vacuum and dust frequently and always wash your hands before eating.
 
ST: What about laundering the pads and padding that might contain flame retardants? Does that help?
CG: Washing regularly will help keep dust levels down, which is important for reducing exposure, but you can’t completely “wash out” the flame retardants.
 
ST: Ugh. Is there any good news?
CG: Yes. The California legislation that originally led to the national use of flame retardants in foam (TB117) may be updated soon (a proposal was submitted in early February), and would virtually eliminate the need for this excessive application of flame retardants. (You can learn how to support the change in legislation here.)
ST: Thanks. We’re on it.