Thursday, December 1, 2011

How Dangerous Is Your Child's Car Seat?

Crushed Cheerios, crumbs, pacifiers, toys, socks…they're all things you commonly find in the cracks of your child's car seat. Add to that list lead, flame retardants, and toxic plastics., a project of the Michigan-based Ecology Center, has released the results of its 2011 car seat tests, and found that many of the seats contained varying levels of those unhealthy chemicals. On the up side, they found that many did not—and that no matter what car seats you have for your children, there are ways to protect them from toxic chemical exposure.

The details: The Ecology Center's scientists purchased 150 2011-model infant, convertible, and booster car seats from various retailers in Michigan, where the Center is located. The seats were tested for levels of lead, which is sometimes used as an additive in plastics; chlorine, which indicates the presence of PVC, or vinyl, (a toxic plastic that contains hormone-disrupting phthalates) and bromine, a sign that the car-seat companies are using neurotoxic brominated flame retardants. (Chlorine is also used in certain flame retardants whose safety is highly suspect.) The scientists also tested for a variety of metals that can trigger allergies or cause cancer and other health problems: antimony, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, copper, mercury, nickel, and tin.

The good news is that 40 percent of the products tested didn't contain any of the chemicals above, a marked improvement over the 2008 and 2009 tests, says Rebecca Meuninck, environmental health campaign director at The Ecology Center. And the levels of brominated flame retardants fell 18 percent from previous test levels. "But the fact that 60 percent of the car seats contained at least one of the chemicals we tested for is disconcerting," says Meuninck. Those flame retardants were the most commonly detected chemical, cropping up in 44 percent of the car seats.

More good news: Price didn't seem to be a determinant in the level of chemicals found. "In some cases, the lower-priced seats turned out to have low levels or no chemicals, whereas some of the higher priced seats had high levels," she says. 

Overall, the seats with the lowest levels of chemicals were:
• Infant Seat: Chicco KeyFit 30 in Limonata, Graco Snugride 35 in Laguna Bay, and Combi Shuttle 33 in Cranberry Noche
• Convertible Carseat: Graco Comfort Sport in Caleo, Graco MyRide 65 in Chandler and Streamer, Safety 1st OnSide Air in Clearwater, and Graco Nautilus Elite 3-in-1 in Gabe
• Booster Seat: Graco Turbo Booster in Anders

The seats with the highest levels were:
• Infant Seat: Graco Snugride 35 in Edgemont Red/Black and Graco SnugRide 30 in Asprey
• Convertible Seat: Britax Marathon 70 in Jet Set and Britax Marathon in Platinum
• Booster Seat: Recaro Pro Booster in Blue Opal and Recaro ProSPORT Toddler in Mist

What it means: Meuninck stresses that these results don't in any way mean you shouldn't keep your baby in a car seat. But considering that babies can spend a lot of time in their car seats, they're potentially being exposed to a lot of chemicals that can interfere with their developing lungs, brains, and reproductive systems. As part of the report, the Ecology Center launched a petition asking Graco and Evenflo, the two largest car-seat manufacturers, to remove harmful brominated flame retardants from their car seats.
"For parents, this can be incredibly overwhelming, so one thing we want to tell folks is that there are some ways to reduce exposure," Meuninck says. 

• Don't let your baby nap in the car seat. An hour or two napping in a car seat is an hour or two of exposure to chemical-laden dust, and it could pose a breathing risk for your baby, anyway. A small 2006 study in the British Medical Journal of nine babies found that the upright sleeping position that infant car seats impose puts them at risk for obstructed airways. Infants don't have good head control, and the doctors who authored the study noted that if their heads slump forward while napping, it could narrow their upper airways and cause breathing problems. If they're not actually being driven somewhere, take them out of the seat.

• Hold your baby! Along those same lines, it's not a good idea to use the car seat as an all-purpose carryall. And not just because of chemical exposure. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there's been an increase in something called "positional skull deformities," or, simply put, flat spots on infants' skulls, which they attribute to babies' spending too much time in car seats, infant carriers, and other devices that put pressure on the back of a baby's skull. In most cases, these deformities disappear once a baby starts sitting upright, but the Academy still recommends that babies don't sleep or spend much time in car seats. Try a sling or a baby carrier instead, both of which can be found in flame-retardant-free organic cotton.

• Vacuum your car. "Under heat and UV light, the chemicals in car seats can break down and migrate out," says Meuninck. So treat your car the way you treat your house: Vacuum it frequently with a HEPA-filtered vacuum and damp-mop the hard surfaces to limit dust exposure, and do the same with the actual car seat. Doing so protects parents, too: Flame retardants, which are found in high levels of car dust, according to past tests, can cause thyroid problems in adults. 

• Find (or create) shade. To keep UV and heat from breaking the chemicals down even faster, park in the shade or under some form of cover as often as you can. And consider investing in some (legal) window films or shades that limit solar heat gain but don't impair a driver's visibility. 

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