Safe seats

 Boy asleep in rear-facing Britax Marathon car seat.

As parents we spend hours researching options when considering the purchase of a new car seat as it’s one of the most important and well-used tools in keeping our little loved ones safe. We consider price, functionality, color, size, softness, etc. Most of us, however, never dream that we have to consider whether or not the product is hazardous.

Toxic Seats, a program of the Ecology Center, recently released their 2015 Car Seat Study. Hidden Passengers: Chemical Hazards in Children’s Car Seats is their fifth such report since 2006 testing for potentially toxic chemicals, particularly flame retardants. Once again the majority of car seats (73 percent) tested contained hazardous flame retardants. Research Director, Jeff Gearhart, is quick to point out, “Car seats save lives. It’s absolutely essential that parents put their children in them while driving, regardless of the rating a particular seat received at However our research shows that some car seats contain more harmful chemicals than others.”

Chemicals of concern showing up in car seats include polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and phthalate plasticizers. The health risks associated with the detected chemicals range from endocrine disruption (alteration of the hormone system) to cognitive impairments and cancer. Surprisingly, flame retardants aren’t chemically bound to the fabric, foam or plastic in which they are found. Instead the chemicals release over time. Meanwhile our children are strapped in — perhaps wearing as little as a diaper on hot days — where they may inhale, ingest and/or absorb the off-gassing chemicals.

Children actually breathe more air, and eat and drink more food and water (pound for pound) as compared to adults. This, coupled with the fact that children’s bodies are still developing, causes children to be more highly exposed and especially vulnerable to the potentially harmful effects of flame retardants.

Additionally states, “… analyses of real-world vehicle fire scenarios suggest that flame retardant chemicals in car seats are unlikely to keep a child safer in a fire. The speed with which an engine fire fills the cabin with smoke and then flames, coupled with typical emergency response times, can make the brief delay in ignition from chemical flame retardants inadequate.” They urge car manufacturers to re-design certain parts of vehicles to reduce fire hazards instead of adding more chemicals.

Best Brands

So what is a concerned parent to do? For starters, check the report and its ratings to see where your favorite brands rank. The boosters and car seats manufactured by Britax and Clek and tested by were rated as “lowest concern.” These two companies “… have been proactively implementing policies to reduce hazards in their products while still meeting all safety standards,” according Unfortunately Graco, a widely available brand, performed the worst with multiple products rated as “high concern.”

Tips from

Here’s their advice regarding car seats and the car environment as a whole, because every surface and material in the car itself is likely coated or infused with flame retardant chemicals.

  • Vacuum the car interior and the nooks and crannies of car seats. Also dust surfaces with a wet cloth. Chemicals that migrate out, including flame retardants, can cling to dust particles. Open the car windows when possible.
  • Limit the time your children spend in their car seats. Only use the car seat during travel, not as a place for your child to nap or sit outside of the car.
  • Limit direct sunlight on the car seat and high temperatures in your car. Flame retardants and other hazardous chemicals may be released at a higher rate when your car becomes hot. When possible, park in the shade or in covered parking. On hot days, roll down the windows and let heat — and potential toxics — escape upon return to the vehicle.
  • Contact car seat companies. Let them know you expect them to manufacture products without toxic chemicals, which can threaten the health of our children and natural resources. Car seat companies need to hear from people like you. They need to know we are tired of toxic chemicals being added to our children’s products, and demand safer, healthier options.

To read more about the study and to view the full methodology, results and rankings, visit

Listen to Gillian Miller, Ecology Center Staff Scientist, discuss the report on Michigan Radio.

– Melissa Cooper Sargent, Environmental Health Educator with LocalMotionGreen at Ecology Center. For more information, you can email her at or visit

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