One member of that family of chemicals, known collectively as chlorinated tris, was removed from children's pajamas over cancer concerns a generation ago.
Yet that same flame retardant turned up in significant amounts in 11 baby mattresses sold recently by national and local retailers under the Babies R Us, Foundations and Angeles brands. Two other mattresses made by Angeles contained a related form of tris.
While furniture-makers often add flame retardants to the polyurethane foam cushioning in sofas and upholstered chairs, the test results on infant mattresses surprised and alarmed some scientists who have studied the chemicals.
Babies and even toddlers can spend 12 or more hours a day in a crib, and foam mattresses can meet federal fire-safety rules without the use of chemicals.
Linda Birnbaum, director of the federal government's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said regulators had assured her that chlorinated tris and other toxic flame retardants weren't used in mattresses.
"These are bad chemicals, and we've known they've been bad for a long time," said Birnbaum, a toxicologist. "If these chemicals are in your child's mattress, they are going to be constantly exposed."
In the late 1970s, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that TDCPP, a form of tris, could cause mutations in DNA, and its manufacturer removed it voluntarily from the market for children's pajamas. When researchers look for flame retardants in house dust, they still find TDCPP, which was never banned.
The Tribune tested 27 mattresses. All of the mattresses containing chlorinated tris had one thing in common: labels saying they were made in China or imported from China.
None of the tested mattresses made domestically contained significant amounts of any form of chlorinated tris. The response to the test results from manufacturers, importers and retailers varied.
Wayfair, the retailer that fulfilled the Tribune's Wal-Mart order through the retail giant's online marketplace program, halted sales of the Angeles crib mattress, which fits cribs that are popular at child care centers.
One importer, however, vigorously defended its product. Summer Infant Inc., the importer of the Babies R Us branded crib and bassinet mattresses that contained chlorinated tris, noted that the mattresses "are in a sealed impermeable plastic covering," which "ensures no exposure of the inner mattress foam to the child." Responding to questions from the Tribune, the company wrote, "Simply put, the statements made are misleading and reckless in that they imply a health hazard that doesn't actually exist."
But Birnbaum and Heather Stapleton, a Duke University chemist who studies flame retardants, questioned whether any foam product can be sealed completely. They said chemicals escape when they vaporize and seep through seams or holes and get into air or dust.
And Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, stressed that she sees no need for flame retardants in children's mattresses, which can be protected with inherently flame-resistant wraps or barriers.
"I strongly encourage all mattress manufacturers to comply with our performance standard through the use of barrier technologies and to avoid using any potentially harmful chemicals to which children can be exposed," she said in a statement. "The law strictly prohibits children's products from having hazardous chemicals that children could be exposed to and could foreseeably cause substantial illness or injury."
The agency is awaiting approval from its federal safety commissioners for a broad study of children's exposure to flame retardants in consumer products.
— By Patricia Callahan and Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune (MCT)