guest post: flame retardants

Today marks Change Is Possible’s first guest post!  Today’s post is from Lisa.  Lisa is a 32 year-old music teacher, mother of two, and real housewife of NJ who strives to be nothing like the ones you see on TV.

“Wear snug-fitting; not flame-resistant.”

I confess that I was perplexed the first time I saw this on a tag for infant pajamas, back in early 2004.  Little did I know at the time that any cute fleece sleeper I’d previously dressed my daughter in was required by the CPSC to be flame-resistant – achieved by either coating the garment in chemicals or weaving flame-retardants into the fibers of the material.  This was when I first became aware of the fact that many things around us are doused in a variety of chemicals to ensure they don’t burn in the event of a fire.  It’s a good idea – but at what cost?

It’s hard to get away from these items – especially if you prefer to sleep on a bed (heck, even your carpet is full of flame-retardants), or sit on a couch.  By law, kids need to ride in carseats – and carseats are full of the  chemicals, too.  Unless you’re the greenest of the green, you probably have lights and a television in your home – also containing flame-retardants.  In seaching for “alternatives” I found a lovely shop locally that handcrafts natural mattresses and discovered that I could replace my king-size with a more natural alternative (made of cotton, latex and wool) for a mere $2500; alas, that was not in the cards financially.  As with so many products and choices nowadays, healthy living ain’t cheap.

The year my daughter turned two, an article was published in the New York Times entitled “Toxic Breast Milk?” which listed the various chemicals that are passed from mom to baby via human milk.  Swell.  Some of the most common of these chemicals are known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers).

I later learned that any chemical exposure happens first in the womb, as the placenta is less of a “filter” than human milk; it’s actually similar to how alcohol consumption is a much bigger deal for a pregnant woman than a nursing mother.  Some damage has been done before the baby ever emerges on the outside, as they’ve inherited an ugly mix of environmental contaminants from mom.  Activist group MOMS (Make Our Milk Safe) reports: “Along with its antibodies, enzymes and general goodness, breast milk also contains dozens of compounds that have been linked to negative health effects,” listing specifically  Bisphenol A (BPA, a plastic component), PBDEs (used in flame retardants), perchlorate (used in rocket fuel), perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs, used in floor cleaners and non-stick pans), phthalates (used in plastics), polyvinyl chloride (PVC, commonly known as vinyl) and the heavy metals cadmium, lead and mercury as leading offenders.

The good news is that the levels babies take in by mouth are significantly less than what the average city-dweller breathes in, though that’s not really great news for those of us who, you know, breathe.

Since then, some states have gone so far as to ban PBDEs in furniture and electronics.  This is a good start — legislation is probably the only way we’re going to be able to get away from these types of ubiquitous chemicals.  Until then, the best I can do is to purchase 100% cotton clothing for my children (no polyester here; poly is petroleum based, probably one of the reasons it burns so quickly).

Perhaps the “children’s advocacy groups” who pushed for flame-retardant pajamas in the first place wonder how I sleep soundly knowing my babies aren’t wearing flame-retardant pajamas.  It’s simple: I follow the biological imperitave to keep babies close at night.  This would allow me to scoop them up in the event of a house fire, as we’d be right next to one another instead of them being alone in a burning room.  I minimize waking risks by not burning candles around my kids and as a rule, I don’t let the toddlers cook on an open flame!

In the meantime, I’ll try to minimize exposure to other all-too-common chemicals around my house and hope for the day when either science develops less caustic substances or the government prohibits manufacturing household items using toxic materials in the first place.


One response to this post.

  1. Here is an interesting comment left elsewhere with regards to this post:

    I had to do a section about flame retardants when I was in college. What those tags don’t say is that the retardant they spray on the fabric washes off usually in 3 washings (may be more now…been a long time since I was in school!) Also, the way the fibers burn has a lot to do with how you can be injured in a fire. Cotton burns like paper, and flakes away from you. Fleece actually melts when burned, and will stick to your flesh. It is very hard to be removed from skin/wounds. We had to set up a pair of worn kid’s PJs for the class…very scary!

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