A child’s first few years are an exciting time for parents who hope, if for nothing else, that their child starts his or her life happy and healthy.
Unfortunately, not all products marketed for children and babies are completely safe for their use. Many contain toxic chemicals that may have detrimental health impacts for children exposed during critical stages of development.
Two Chemicals Linked to Health Problems
The media reports it, scientists have proven it, and American families are experiencing it: chronic diseases are on the rise in this country. Cancers, birth defects, childhood asthma, learning and behavior disorders, even obesity and early puberty are growing more prevalent in our society.
Scientists do not know why more children are developing these chronic problems. We do know, however, that this rise in chronic disease has occurred alongside a rise in the prevalence, use, and pervasiveness of toxic chemicals in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the consumer products we use. Many of these chemicals are associated with chronic disease, and many others have never been tested for human health impacts. Moreover, there is often no “safe dose” of these chemicals for children. A growing body of evidence shows health effects at low doses, and chronic, multi-source exposure means that even a small amount of exposure from a variety of sources may add up to a major concern.
Even products designed for babies and young children may contain chemicals that pose a health concern. Unfortunately, because manufacturers are not required to label baby products as containing toxic chemicals, parents have inadequate information to make wise purchasing decisions. To begin to close this gap, we purchased some popular baby products and analyzed them for two chemicals of concern:
• Toxic flame retardants (or PBDEs) are a set of chemicals used to slow the spread of fire in a wide set of consumer products. Levels of these chemicals found in the breast milk of American women and some fetuses are approaching levels shown to impair learning and cause behavior problems in lab mice.
• Phthalates are a family of chemicals used in many plastic children’s products to improve flexibility and in personal care products to bind fragrance. Adults and children are exposed to phthalates through everyday contact with these products as well as through contact with indoor air and dust. These chemicals have been linked to premature birth, reproductive defects, and early onset puberty.
Findings: Many Baby Products Contain Toxic Chemicals
We selected a sample of a variety of baby products from several manufacturers and tested them for toxic flame retardants or phthalates. We found:
• Toxic Flame Retardants.
We tested seven infant sleep aids and other products for toxic flame retardants; three of those products tested positive for PBDEs in the foam material. The tests found multiple PBDEs in the foam material of the First Years’ Air Flow Sleep Positioner, the Leachco Sleep ‘n Secure 3-in-1 Infant Sleep Positioner, and the PeeWees Disposable Crib Mattress Pads.
We tested 18 bath books, teethers, bath toys, and other products for phthalates; 15 of these products tested positive for phthalates.
These tests show that some baby products may in fact contain toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, since manufacturers do not have to label their products as containing phthalates or toxic flame retardants, parents have no way of knowing whether or not a product poses a hidden hazard.
Recommendations for Parents
Parents have the right to know about chemicals in the products they purchase for their children. In the absence of good government regulations, but armed with the knowledge that some chemicals are a cause for concern, parents can take a few simple actions to limit their child’s exposure to these and other toxic chemicals.
At the store, parents should select toys, baby dishware, and sleep aids made of materials that are less likely to contain toxic chemicals. At home, parents should avoid washing plastic dishware with harsh dishwashing soap and hot water, which may allow chemicals to leach out of the plastic. For a useful tip sheet, parents should visit Masspirg.org.
Recommendations for Policy Makers
Parents cannot deal with these issues alone. The U.S. government must ensure the safety of all products on the market for children.
• Phase Out Dangerous Chemicals.
Despite some remaining data gaps about the hazards of some chemicals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must act based on the overwhelming weight of evidence showing that some chemicals might harm human health. The United States should phase out the use of hazardous chemicals – especially in children’s products. Until the federal government acts, state governments should fill the regulatory gap and support policies to phase out these chemicals as well.
• Reform U.S. Chemicals Policy.
Currently, manufacturers can put chemicals on the market without proving they are safe. Manufacturers should be required to provide all hazard and health-impact information to EPA so the agency can begin to assess the thousands of chemicals currently on the market for which it has little or inadequate data. Next, manufacturers of chemicals should be required to conduct an alternatives analysis, in order to determine if they really are using the least hazardous chemical for each application. Finally, EPA must have the authority to ban or restrict the use of a chemical if it can harm human health.
• Consumer Product Safety Commission Should Protect Consumers.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has an obligation to protect consumers from dangerous products. The CPSC should first label these products with the names of the chemicals they contain in order to allow parents to choose less toxic products. Second, the CPSC should take a precautionary approach and require manufacturers to remove chemicals that may pose a particular threat to fetuses, infants, and children, particularly when the chemical is not necessary for the product to function according to design.