The Washington Department of Ecology found flame retardant chemicals in 17 of the 85 children’s play tents, tunnels and chairs that it tested. The flame retardants found include two chemicals, TDCPP and TCEP, that were banned under Washington’s Children’s Safe Products Act in 2017, although the products tested were purchased prior to the ban.
Ecology has informed the product manufacturers that these chemicals are no longer allowed to be used in children’s products. The agency plans to conduct follow-up testing in the future to ensure manufacturers are complying with the law.
The positive news in the study is that none of the chairs or upholstered furniture items manufactured after California changed its flammability standard in 2015 contained any of the flame retardants Ecology tested for. Prior to the change, California’s flammability standard was a major driver of flame retardant use nationwide. The new California standard applies to upholstered furniture, but not to tents and tunnels. It does not prohibit the use of flame retardants, but makes it easier for products to meet the standard without their use.
“This is really a good news-bad news story for parents,” said Saskia van Bergen, the Ecology chemist who conducted the study. “We’re not thrilled to find so many flame retardants in the play tents, but the absence of these chemicals in furniture complying with California’s updated standard shows that it’s possible to make furniture that meets fire safety requirements and uses safer chemical ingredients.”
Adding flame retardants to the fabrics used in tents and the foam used in furniture is intended to prevent the spread of fires, but testing has shown little safety benefit from these chemicals. Putting these chemicals in products, however, can lead to significant exposures to people, particularly for children. As materials wear, the flame retardant chemicals get into house dust, where they can be breathed in or get onto hands, clothing or food.
Camping tents are often made with flame retardant chemicals because they could be exposed to camp stoves or other heat sources. A child’s play tent, which is typically used indoors or in a yard, is unlikely to be exposed to flame.
Ecology also tested the furniture, tents and tunnels for several other flame retardants that the agency added to the Chemicals of High Concern to Children list in 2017, which requires manufacturers to report if they use the chemicals in children’s products. The Washington State Department of Health is now evaluating these chemicals and plans to issue recommendations by the end of the year.
Parents concerned about their children’s exposure to flame retardants should look for the California label, known as Technical Bulletin 117-2013 or TB 117-2013, when buying upholstered furniture. Furniture that meets California’s fire safety standard without adding flame retardants will clearly state, “The upholstery materials in this product contain NO added flame retardant chemicals.”
For play tents, tunnels and other products that do not carry the California label, there is usually no way for parents to know whether they contain flame retardants without laboratory testing.
Ecology advises parents to require children to wash their hands before eating, which reduces the potential for household dust to be ingested. Using a vacuum with a HEPA filter can also reduce your exposure to toxics in household dust.