For the past several decades, furniture manufacturers have been adding flame retardants to their products, especially products designed for infants and children. The practice seemed like a good idea at first but long-term exposure to the flame-retardant chemicals can cause health problems in children. Some of these chemicals cause neurodevelopmental delays and others are hormone disruptors.

Over time, certain toxic chemicals have been identified, some have been banned, and studies have been conducted to measure the amount of toxic exposure the average American child gets in the typical home environment. Many babies and preschool-age kids spend as much as 50 hours a week in day-care centers and preschools, though, and very little research has been done on toxic contaminants in these environments.

Asa Bradman, an associate director of the University of California (UC Berkeley) Center for Children’s Environmental Health Research, did recently study the indoor pollutants at a number of California daycare centers. His study involved 40 childcare centers in Alameda and Monterey Counties. These centers serve 1,764 children in agricultural, rural, and urban settings.

Bradman and his research team collected samples of the indoor air and floor dust from these centers while the children were in attendance. Each sample was tested for:

  • 14 forms of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
  • 4 forms of non-PBDEs that include tris phosphate compounds

The researchers found PBDEs in every dust sample. The middle (median) level of PBDE was a bit lower than the levels previous studies found in samples taken from homes but the median levels of chlorinated tris proved to be similar to or higher than previous studies measured in household environments. Most of the air samples did not contain as much of the flame-retardant chemicals as the dust samples.

Foam-based upholstered furniture, carpeting, and drapes are commonly used items that emit toxic chemicals used in their manufacture and chemicals they’re treated with to be fire and soil resistant. Centers equipped with foam products tested at significantly higher levels of flame-retardant chemicals than those without these items:

  • 29 centers used upholstered furniture
  • 17 used foam-based napping materials

California and other states have issued bans against certain products that contain these chemicals but many products manufactured and sold before the bans are still in use today. Bradman said “it’s a bit surprising to still be seeing” flame retardants found to be toxic in the 1970s.

Bradman recalls “learning about the tris phosphate flame retardants in kids’ pajamas when I was in high school 35 years ago.” At that time, Bruce Ames, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology, discovered these chemicals commonly added to children’s sleepwear caused genetic mutations and were presumed to cause cancer.

Source: Yang, Sarah. “Study finds hazardous flame retardants in preschool, childcare settings.” UC Berkeley News Center. UC Regents. May 15, 2014. Web. Jun 4, 2014.