As mothers, the safety of our little ones comes first in every decision we make. To combat the obvious dangers in our lives—like car accidents or falls—we purchase safety products like car seats and baby gates. Yet unbeknownst to us, there are many imperceptible dangers lurking that don’t get nearly the same amount of attention but can prove equally hazardous to our children’s long-term health. One invisible danger is clothing.
Most of us wouldn’t label our children’s clothing as hazardous. But did you know that some clothing manufacturers incorporate over 8,000 synthetic chemicals in their production process? Many of which are known carcinogens and hormone disruptors. The current regulatory standards in the U.S. are inadequate, and do not require these companies to disclose chemical use. In some cases, the inclusion of certain chemicals is actually required by law. One of the most prolific chemical additives required in children’s clothing are flame retardants. At first glance you may think this sounds safe. By definition, flame retardants slow or impede fire from spreading, but a closer look reveals these chemicals’ inherent toxicity and ability to migrate out of products and into human bodies.
Flame retardants have been linked to endocrine and thyroid disruption, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal development, child development and neurological function. Children are one of the highest risk groups for flame retardant exposure; they have thinner, more permeable skin, which allows these chemicals to transfer into the body more easily. The visible threat of fire has caused the U.S. to require flame retardants in so many textiles that it’s estimated that 97% of Americans have detectable levels of these chemicals in their bloodstream. Fifty percent of household dust is contaminated with flame retardants. They are so pervasive that they are even found in mothers’ breast milk, with American mothers having up to 75 times the concentration compared to mothers from European countries.
So why would U.S. regulators require flame retardants if they’re such a threat to our health? Well, that story begins in the 1940s with a pair of cowboy chaps.
In the early 1940’s, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch was a hit weekly radio show beloved by American kids. When his “Autry cowboy ranch outfit” came on the market, kids were clamoring to get it. However, there proved to be a fatal flaw in the design of this adored costume: its plush chaps were made from viscose rayon—a highly flammable fiber. This was a time when children encountered fire more regularly than today, with open wood burning fireplaces, gas stoves and lit cigarettes. When children wearing the costume came in close contact to fire, their suits were liable to burst into flames within seconds, giving parents little time to react. Between 1945 and 1953, about 100 families filed lawsuits against the manufacturers due to injury or death caused by the costume.
Word of young children’s deaths caused a public outcry and parents demanded better oversight from the government over producers of children’s merchandise. This lead to the passing of the U.S. Flammable Fabrics Act, which regulates (through the CPSC) the flammability of clothing and other textiles. Children’s sleepwear, aged 9 months to 14 years, has the most stringent flammability requirements (16 CFR Parts 1615 and 1616). Sleepwear must be flame retardant and fully self-extinguishable when removed from a flame source, which has historically required the addition of hazardous flame-retardant chemicals in order to meet the regulations.
Today, manufacturers of children’s sleepwear most often use an additive methodology to saturate natural fibers with flame retardants. Garments are either sprayed or exposed to a flame-retardant gas. Through this method, flame retardants are not chemically bonded to the original material. Therefore, they are far more likely to dislodge over time, coming in contact with you and your children’s skin and mouths.
The Persistent Cycle
When the Flammability Act was first implemented, the most commonly used flame retardants was TDCPP, an organo-phosphate also used in pesticides and nerve gas. It only took 20 years to definitively link this chemical to cancer and endocrine dysfunction and in the 1970’s, it was banned from children’s sleepwear. But the ban on this specific chemical did not change the legal flammability requirements, and thus one chemical was simply replaced by a chemically similar compound with similar risks. Throughout the years, we have seen this dangerous cycle persist. Some examples include:
- PBB’s, or polybrominated biphenyls. This chemical was phased out in the 1970’s after studies demonstrated its negative effects on exposed communities. Some people suffered from skin disorders, thyroid dysfunction, and compromised nervous and immune systems, as well as impairment to the liver, kidneys, and thyroid gland. In addition, studies conducted on mice showed carcinogenic effects.
- PBDE’s, polybrominated diphenyl ether, served to replace the banned PBB’s. Thorough testing on PBDE’s concluded that the chemical compound leads to impaired neurological development in children, lower birth weight, as well as strong evidence suggesting PBDE’s are also carcinogenic. PBDE was fully banned in 2007 due to its health and environmental concerns.
These are not the only flame-retardant chemicals used in textiles. There are hundreds available on the market today. Making matters worse, banning them does not necessarily rid them from our bodies or the environment quickly. They bioaccumulate in the environment and are present in products with long useful lives; like mattresses, couches, car seats and strollers.
Unfortunately, bans on these chemicals is far from a coordinated effort in the U.S. The federal government is largely uninvolved, leaving the responsibility of oversight and regulatory action to the individual states. It wasn’t until 2017 that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began investigating halogenated flame retardants under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA). Yet today they are still not banned at a federal level in all children’s products.
Do Flame Retardants Protect Us From Fire?
First, let’s put things into perspective. Although fire is a terrifying threat, it is not a major cause of child mortality in the United States. Fires that cause the most damage and injury do not typically start on children’s clothes. The most dangerous fires are large house fires in which smoke inhalation—not burning—is the leading cause of death. Flame retardant chemicals on clothing cannot protect against house fires or smoke inhalation. They are only designed to prevent very small flames from igniting clothing. Even firefighters have campaigned to ban their usage, since burning flame retardants creates toxic fumes which pose more of a risk than some fires themselves. As a parent you need to ask yourself: are you more worried of your child catching fire or being subject to long-term toxic exposure? Catching fire is a very visible threat that you can probably imagine vividly, whereas chemical exposure is not easily seen or understood. As a parent, only you can make the right choice for your children. At Borobabi, we want to make sure you’re aware and informed of your options.
How Can I Prevent Exposure?
If you believe flame retardants chemicals are the bigger risk and would like to minimize your exposure, there are a few ways to do so.
- The CPSC issued a work-around for the flammability requirements through “tight-fitting” sleepwear. If clothing is tight-fitting, flames lack the oxygen needed to propagate and therefore self-extinguishes. Look for sleepwear that says, “Wear Snug Fitting – Not Flame Resistant” or “Caution – keep away from heat and flame.” These products are free of flame retardants.
- Wash your hands frequently. Flame retardants can fall loose and get into dust, so our hands are likely to come into contact with them.
- Do not let your children put electronics in their mouths. Cell phones and T.V. remotes are among the most dangerous due to their high concentrations of flame retardants.
- Use as little carpeting and draperies as possible. These are treated with flame retardants and in time end up dispersing them.
- Avoid PBDE’s in foam (used in mattresses and upholstered furniture). If a product is labeled as meeting California’s TB 117, it has a high likelihood of containing more toxins.
- Vacuum often and use a wet mop to avoid dust.
At Borobabi we take the threat of chemical exposure very seriously, especially for young children and pregnant women. One step we can take towards a better future is to bring awareness to these often hidden health and environmental risks. Your safety and the safety of your children is the focus of our mission and is the reason why we have chosen to only carry sleepwear that is free from flame retardant chemicals.