A flame retardant once banned for use in children's pajamas is still being used in products including foam in a baby stroller, a nursing pillow and a changing table pad.
A compound that was phased out of use as a flame retardant in children's pajamas in the 1980s after it was found to cause DNA mutations is being added to furniture foam and children's products, new research shows.
The compound and a closely related one appear to be in use to replace the group of bromine-containing flame retardants known as PBDEs.
PBDEs have been more or less banned in recent years because they have been shown to persist in the body and may cause problems with neurodevelopment and hormone regulation.
The two, newly studied compounds, abbreviated TDCPP and TCPP, contain phosphate rather than bromine to achieve their flame retardant properties.
"We were under the impression that the use of phosphate-based flame retardants had stopped when they stopped using it in children's pajamas," said study lead author Heather Stapleton of Duke University. "None of us thought they were using it in furniture."
"I was quite surprised to discover that it's back in furniture and baby products," added Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, Calif., who authored the 1978 paper on TDCPP and participated in the new study.
The team collected a number of samples from various furniture items and tested them for the presence of TDCPP and TCPP. Stapleton, who was pregnant at the time, also cut foam samples for testing from her baby gear -- a stroller, a car seat, a nursing chair, a changing pad and a nursing pillow.
Nineteen of 24 samples contained TDCPP or TCPP. All of the baby products except the nursing pillow contained one or the other of the compounds.
Another brand of nursing pillow does contain a phosphate-based flame retardant, Blum said.
Because of the prevalence of these chemicals, the team also examined samples of indoor dust, which is thought to be the main route of exposure to PBDEs. "They were just about in every sample we looked at," Stapleton said.
"Particularly for young children, it really makes you wonder about the additive nature of these flame retardants," Stapleton said.
The research appears online in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Much of the use of flame retardants is driven by a California law requiring upholstered furniture products sold in the state to meet a certain level of fire resistance.
"The other thing that's really sad," Blum said, "is that this California flammability standard has been in effect since the early 1980s but it's not clear it's made any difference for fire safety. For example, the National Fire Protection Association, the authority on U.S. fire statistics, says fire data isn't good enough to show whether it has saved any lives."
Unlike PBDEs, which persist in fat tissues, phosphate-based flame retardants are metabolized by the body, Stapleton explained. "Being metabolized doesn't necessarily mean it's better for you."
Little is known about the health effects of these compounds, she said, other than the 1978 study that found TDCPP was weakly mutagenic in studies of mammalian tissues in petri dishes.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission classifies TDCPP as a probable human carcinogen, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers it a moderate cancer hazard and a moderate hazard for reproductive and developmental effects, according to the researchers.
"The European Union is conducting a risk assessment of this compound right now, but they are not looking at exposure from dust," Stapleton said.
A major flame retardant manufacturer, Albemarle Corporation, insists that TDCPP is both safe and important for fire safety.
Stephanie Dixon, Corporate Communications Manager for Albemarle, which manufactures TDCP for use in foam for furniture and other products said in a statement, "Without the flame retardant this foam can present a fire hazard, and so the use of the flame retardant is important because of fire safety considerations, particularly in the case of protecting small children. The use of TDCPP in products containing foam has been thoroughly evaluated by independent experts, and found to present no significant risk to consumers."