After a new baby arrives, one of the first products a parent uses is the car seat to take them home from the hospital.
But while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides information on how car seats perform in crashes, one consumer research group is aiming to provide parents information about the chemicals — primarily those in flame retardants — that may be contained in the seat material.
Healthystuff.org, a project of the Michigan-based non-profit Ecology Center, analyzed more than 150 new car seats for the presence of flame-retarding chemicals, including bromine, chlorine, lead and other substances that have been linked to learning disabilities or developmental problems.
Because it's unknown whether the chemical levels in car seats are high enough to cause harm, the researchers cautioned that the value of this study is secondary to a car seat's primary purpose.
"Car seats are a safety device," said Jeff Gearhart, research director for healthystuff.org. "Parents should use a car seat regardless of what our tests show. None of the results of our findings mean you shouldn't have a car seat, even if that car seat is the poorest one we tested."
Rather, parents may want to use the ratings when purchasing a new seat when their child grows, Gearhart said.
The best and the worst
Here's how the top five car seats fared in the study:
- Graco Turbo Booster in Anders: the only seat tested that did not contain any chlorine, bromine or the nine metals tested.
- Graco SnugRide 35 in Laguna Bay: contained 234 parts per million (ppm) of bromine in the seat, and no detectable levels of other possibly toxic chemicals.
- The Chicco Keyfit 30 in Limonata: 303 ppm of bromine in the seat, and no detectable levels of other possibly toxic chemicals.
- Combi Shuttle 33 in Cranberry Noche: 781 ppm of bromine in the seat, and no detectable levels of other possibly toxic chemicals.
- Graco SnugRide 35 in Flint: 6 ppm of bromine, and 54 ppm of cobalt in the seat, and no detectable levels of other possibly toxic chemicals.
And the bottom three car seats (beginning with the worst) in the study:
- Recaro Pro Booster in Blue Opal: 2,193 ppm of bromine and 61,130 ppm of chlorine in the seat, and 36 ppm of copper in the base.
- Britax Marathon 70 in Jet Set: 2,043 ppm of bromine and 628 ppm of chromium in the seat. The clip also contained bromine, lead and copper.
- Recaro ProSPORT Toddler in Misty: 1,739 ppm of bromine and 52 ppm of copper in the seat, along with bromine and lead in the base and clip.
[See the results of all seats tested.]
Gearhart said the experience of testing a multitude of consumer products has led him to observe that many of the chemicals of concern are found in a number of products. [Related: Top 5 Ways to Reduce Toxins in Homes]
"The important things for folks to understand, in terms of exposure, is we have this wide range of consumer products that are going to have these chemicals in them," he said.
So while reducing exposure may be an achievable goal, avoiding these chemicals entirely probably is not.
"We think these findings are important and raise cause for concern," he said. "But we want folks to realize you need to take practical steps where you can, and you can't eliminate all of these hazards in one fell swoop."
Flame retardant dangers
As this is the fourth year the group has tested car seats, Gearhart said that one encouraging sign has been that scores on the seats have gotten better.
For example, he said, flame retardants containing bromine have dropped by 18 percent.
Eliminating flame retardants is an important step to take, said Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar in the chemistry department at the University of California, Berkeley, and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. Blum was not involved in the new review of car seats.
"The problem is the children are being exposed to flame retardant chemicals that in this usage do not provide a fire safety benefit," Blum said, explaining that while the bromine flame retardants work, they will not work properly if, for example, they are in the car seat but not in its fabric, which catches on fire first.
Blum said the health risk to children posed by chemicals in car seats is unclear. And so it's unknown how much benefit comes from changing a car seat; however, she added, since some kids spend a good chunk of time in their car seats, the change may be important.
"We do know [these chemicals] go from products into dust, and we do know it goes from dust into people," said Blum. "We can't prove how much goes into them, but we do know this goes into them."