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Seattle-based childcare study spotlights concerns about flame retardants in nap mats

KOMO photo

The Interlake Child Care and Learning Center is one of 7 centers in the Seattle area that agreed to let researchers take their old nap mats and test the foam cushions for chemical flame retardants.

Director Marna Towle and her staff didn't hesitate to take the opportunity to learn about possible exposure to harmful chemicals linked to cancer, hormone distruption, childhood obesity and other serious diseases in young children.

"When I see the words flame retardant I think great, it's not gonna burn very much if it catches on fire," said Towle. "But I don't think any of us are really thinking about- Oh, that means toxins are being released into the air in static form."

Reseachers at Toxic-Free Future gave each center a new supply of nap mats that are free of both flame retardant chemicals and PVC (vinyl) which often contains harmful chemicals called phthalates.

The old mats went to a lab at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs which tested them for different flame retardant chemicals.

Seattle researchers also collected air and dust samples at each center immediately after the old mats were removed.

Then, they compared the dust analysis to samples taken 3 months after the new mats were put to use.

"The levels of the flame retardant in the dust that was at the childcares at the highest concentrations, declined by 79 percent after we switched out the nap mats," said Toxic-Free Future's Science Director Erika Schreder who led the study.

Schreder says the peer-reviewed study shows that removing harmful flame retardants from foam nap mats reduces kids' exposure.

The study found that the level of a different flame retardant, while in lower concentrations, dropped by 90 percent after the toxin-free mats were introduced.

"So it really does matter that we reduce kids' expososure to these toxic chemicals as much as we can," Schreder said.

Towle is still amazed.

"Because I'm not an expert on flame retardants. So not knowing what impact that would have on the air- that was very shocking, actually. Very shocking," said Towle.

"I'm really glad that the study came our way and that we did participate," she added.

While only 7 child care facilities took part, study leaders say the results are clear evidence that something as simple as removing flame retardants from nap mats can help create a much safer environment for kids.

North American Flame Retardant Alliance spokesman Bryan Goodman provided the following statement in response to the Seattle study's release:

“This study, which focuses on extremely minute levels of flame retardants, should not make us lose sight of the important role flame retardants can play in protecting life and property from the threat of fire. This is particularly true when it comes to upholstered furniture, which the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates contributes to 4,700 fires a year with 390 deaths and 660 injuries.

Flame retardants include a broad range of products with differing characteristics, structures and intended uses, so it is not appropriate to make broad and sweeping assertions about these substances. This study largely focuses on a group of flame retardants that industry voluntarily phased out of production years ago. The flame retardant industry is committed to overall product safety and has spent millions of dollars to produce new and innovative products that provide both chemical safety and fire safety.”

Toxic-Free Future says because chemical toxins accumulate in our bodies, the goal should be to reduce all kids exposure as much as possible, regardless of the levels.

The group is now working with local health officials to find affordable ways to get toxic-free nap mats in all childcare facilities.

Schreder says researchers were only able to find one nap mat product on the market that was free of both flame retardants and vinyl. The mats, made by Community Playthings, sell for about $48 each, much more many if not most childcare facilities can afford, especially considering that health regulations require mats to be replaced as soon as they get a tear, cut, or any other break in the cover.

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