SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Car seats are the only consumer product that parents are legally required to purchase in every state, though they are also commonly used outside of the car as strollers seats, swing inserts and as a place for babies to sleep inside the home.
A recent KPIX investigation repeatedly uncovered concerning, even cancer-causing, chemicals in car seats. Then, utilizing biomonitoring, we investigated an apparent link between high levels of a cancer-causing flame retardant in a child’s body to the flame retardant in her car seat.
The alleged culprit: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 44-year old Federal Motor Vehicle Flammability Standard, FMVSS No. 302.
Anything manufactured for the interior of a vehicle must meet the federal flammability standard. This includes things like fixed vehicle seating, floor mats, dash boards, and aftermarket products like child car seats—which incidentally weren’t required in most states until a decade after the standard was introduced.
Fire scientists like Dr. Vyto Babrauskus, the former head of furniture fire research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), argue that the outdated standard is unnecessarily exposing millions of children to concerning chemical flame retardants in their car seats.
“The flame spread standard was never designed with any recognition of how real world car fires behave,” Babrauskas said.
Babrauskus explained, instead of focusing on protection from typical-sized car fire flames, the 1972 flammability standard relies on a 1.5 inch test flame. The test requires each component material, the fabric, foam, plastic, etc., individually pass a small-flame spread test.
While some fabrics are naturally flame resistant and can pass without added chemicals, manufacturers say they must add chemical flame retardants to the foam padding inside the car seat in order to pass the test. However, fire scientists like Babrauskas contend the test is irrelevant in a real-world car fire, because once the fabric ignites, the flame is too large for flame retardants in the foam to be effective.
“Instead of protecting our kids the standard is introducing poison into their environment,” Babrauskas insists.
He, and many others, contends the current test is only relevant if fires are first ignited inside the car seats themselves by something smaller than a 1.5 inch flame.
Fire scientists argue that a fire ignited anywhere else in the vehicle would be too big for flame retardants by the time flames reached the car seat, and it would be too late to save a child by the time flames reached the foam inside the car seat, and under the child.
A 2008 study titled “Human Survivability in Motor Vehicle Fires” found the 1972 standard is “no longer relevant,” because “the primary threat has changed” from “a lit cigarette, in 1960” to ignition of combustible materials “by an impact-induced fire.”
However, the Department of Transportation, which oversees NHTSA, defended the standard to one car set manufacturer, citing the possibility of “children in the back seat… playing with matches, a cigarette lighter.”
The American Chemistry Council says “retardants provide an important layer of fire protection” and points to more than 150,000 vehicle fires a year.
Similarly, NHTSA cites U.S. Fire Administration and National Fire Protection Association data in defense of its standard, stating that about 194,000 car fires occur annually, resulting in more than 200 deaths.
However, a review of the data indicates that regulators are citing it out of context as the statistics include all vehicle fires, including freight, construction vehicles and car fires that were intentionally set.
Fire scientists point out that none of those fires are relevant to preventing unintentional flame spread in a child’s car seat. They reiterate that the federal flammability standard is only intended to slow the spread of a small flame that is first ignited in upholstered material.
According to additional data that KPIX 5 obtained from the National Fire Protection Association, only 3 percent of unintentional car fires began in upholstered material, resulting in fewer than three deaths per year. There is no indication that any of those fires were first ignited inside a child’s car seat. Statistically speaking, fire scientists like Dr. Vyto Babrauskas say that is improbable, if not impossible, as the vast majority of upholstery is fixed vehicle seating.
Additional data indicates that 98% of those injured or killed in all car fires were too old to have been in a car seat, and there is no evidence that any of those fires began in a child’s car seat.
The Chemical Concern
The concerns about fire retardants date back to the 70’s, when certain chemicals were banned, and others voluntarily removed from children’s pajamas after researchers discovered they were mutagens, linked to cancer.
Decades of research similarly link flame retardants in furniture and baby products to high levels in babies and breast milk.
Groups, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, are now calling on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to outlaw certain flame retardants in children’s products, but the agency has no jurisdiction over car seats which are regulated exclusively by NHTSA, under the DOT.
This is a rare case where the manufactures and the green scientists agree on changes to a regulation. Both groups believe that car seats should be exempted from the current flammability standard.
However, while green scientists contend that chemical flame retardants are harmful to children, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) simply questions whether they are necessary in car seats. Individual manufacturers have long petitioned for exemptions to the standard.
Lack of Evidence
“I was pleased somebody was digging into the issue,” said Rep. Jarred Huffman, (D) California, after seeing our reports. “It seemed so obvious that we should be asking hard questions.”
Like us, Huffman questioned NHTSA about its standard. In response, the agency told the congressman it is “initiating a two-year research program” into the the 44 year old standard overall and added that it will try to quantify “child fatalities and injuries prevented by FMVSS No. 302.”
However, Huffman wasn’t satisfied with that answer. “I don’t want to wait years and years while millions of babies continue to be exposed to a carcinogen for apparently no safety benefit,” he said.
In an email, the agency told us it “believes the standard has saved many children” but admits it has no evidence.
We then reached out to more than a dozen government agencies and industry groups, and no one could provide any evidence or data that indicates the standard, or flame retardants added to car seats in order to meet it, offers any safety benefit in a car fire.
In fact, regulators admit they have never even tested the standard’s effectiveness in car seats.
KPIX Combustion Test
With the help of Combustion Scientist Don Lucas and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, KPIX 5 did what the regulators never have—we lit car seats on fire to test the standard.
In addition to igniting large portions of fully assembled car seats, we conducted a side-by-side comparison burn of a two car seat covers, one with flame retardants and one without.
One sample was taken from a car seat that does meet NHTSA’s FMVSS No. 302. The foam inside was tested to ensure it contained an average amount of flame retardants (specifically TDCPP).
The other sample was an aftermarket organic car seat cover, originally purchased on ETSY. Instead of foam, the interior padding was made of organic wool.
Despite the common belief that organic wool is naturally flame resistant, a side by side test of the naked wool and the naked flame retardant-treated foam demonstrated that the wool would not have passed NHTSA’s current test on its own. While the foam burned comparatively slowly and melted, the naked wool immediately ignited and incinerated within seconds.
However, in a car fire, the interior padding is covered by the car seat fabric which can be naturally flame resistant without chemicals. Again, fire scientists argue that once the fabric ignites, the flame retardants in the interior padding are irrelevant because the flame would be too large.
That is essentially what we found. When we lit the car seat samples for a second time, this time leaving the organic wool and the FR-treated foam covered in their respective car seat fabrics, we got entirely different results.
Side by side, with the fabric and foam combined, as they would be in a real-world fire, the flame retardant-free sample performed better.
“Looking at the amount of smoke production and fire propagation, I think the one without flame retardants (preformed) a little better,” Lucas said, also noting that the sample with flame retardants was dripping flames and producing a thick black smoke.
By comparison, the flame-retardant-free sample took longer to ignite, burned slowly and produced less smoke.
“Even though the materials in car seats can meet the federal standards, they don’t always perform better than materials that wouldn’t meet the fire standards. I think we need to revisit (the standard) and determine how car seats perform in real-world fire situations,” Lucas said after seeing the results.
Changes To The Standard
Fire scientists say, instead of addressing the rare instances of upholstery fires, the flammability standard focus on preventing fires from crashes and gas tank explosions.
To address flame spread, they recommend a testing standard “similar to California’s new furniture flammability standard TB117-2013. The new standard can be met with smolder resistant fabrics or a barrier fabric between the foam and the fabric. Flame retardants are not needed.
Members of both the senate and the house have reviewed our findings and reached out to NHTSA. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation is now planning hearing where members will have the opportunity to questions the DOT about our findings.
Quick Release Technology
In an email to KPIX, NHTSA defended the standard stating it “believes there is a safety need to control how quickly flame can spread to afford time for caregivers to help their children escape the vehicle in the event of a fire.”
However, NHTSA does not require that car seats allow for quick release in an emergency and KPIX has learned that NHTSA reviewed quick-release car seat technology called the Child Safety Seat Emergency Harness Release System (EHRS) nearly a decade ago.
The inventor of the technology, Michael Blackmon, said he reached out to several car seat manufacturers after his discussion with NHTSA, but they told him they weren’t interested in testing the technology because NHTSA doesn’t require it.
“The irony is that NHTSA justifies flame retardant foam because it might save one child playing with a cigarette while exposing millions to chemicals, yet can’t justify my invention because not enough kids die after the accident in a fire or drowning scenario,” Blackmon says. “Tell that to the parents and lawyers that reached out to me over the last eight years about their dead kids and clients.”
He says, in addition to parents involved in car fires, he’s heard from several parents who’s children drowned when a car rolled into a lake and the parents were unable to get the child out of a car seat.
Amy Basset-Brevik says she also reached out to NHTSA and several manufacturers about the quick release technology after she and her husband struggled to get their twin daughters out of their car seats in a car fire.
“Something hit the undercarriage of our vehicle and when I looked back I just saw flames,” said Brevik. “I jumped out of the car to get to the girls in the back and everything was engulfed in flames.”
The Minnesota mom said flame retardants in her children’s car seats were irrelevant in the face of the giant flames. The bigger issue was the inability to quickly remove her kids from the seat as her clothing began to catch fire.
She’s been petitioning NHTSA, and car seat manufactures, for three years to get the quick-release technology on the market. “There needs to be a change,” she insists.
NOTE: Car seats in cars save lives. None of this information should be interpreted to imply otherwise. The safest place for a child in a moving vehicle is in a rear-facing car seat in the middle of the back seat.
CLARIFICATION: NIST asked that we clarify that Dr. Babrauskus’s views don’t necessarily represent those of the agency as NIST has not actually preformed research specific to car seats.
This story was also updated to include additional links to our continuing coverage.