More Misadventures with Flame Retardants: So.Much.Fun.

Misadventure Number 1:

Sometimes, it appears, moms get stuck between an owl pillow and a hard place. Or at least that’s what happened to me on an ill-fated trip to Target last week.

During a (rare and dreaded) shopping adventure in which I was ISO a dress-up mirror for her bedroom, Maya developed a fondness for an admittedly adorable owl pillow perkily perched at the edge of a shelf in the children’s crapola aisle.

It was kinda’ cute, fairly cheap, and not branded by Disney or any other marketing juggernaut, so I was actually contemplating letting her keep the thing when I noticed its tag. On the one hand, it said “100% polyester” and I recalled that Heather Stapleton had said that polyester is rarely treated with chemical flame retardants. On further examination, however, I noticed that its tag also read “This product complies with TB117,” indicating that it meets the California flame retardant standard that requires harmful chemicals to be put into things like my old couch. Cue record scratch here.

Despite all my research on the evils of flame retardants, I had no earthly idea whether this confusion of labels meant that it complied with the California law because its icky polyester already complies without any need for chemicals, or whether this particular pillow had also been doused in IQ-lowering carcinogens. I was pondering the possibilities when I looked over to see that Maya was enthusiastically putting the pillow in her mouth, which is nasty for a whole host of parenting-fail-type reasons.

When my attempts to wrestle the pillow out of her hands were met with embarrassingly loud wails of protest, I conceded that I should at least try to figure out an answer on the whole toxics dealie. First, I asked a sales associate, who gave me a look like I was fresh from an asylum for helicopter moms and suggested I call the main Target consumer help number.

I did just that, and their associate (allegedly named “Bob,” who was obviously an underpaid hourly employee at a call center not here in the U.S.) in turn referred me, after the several explanations I was able to deliver over Maya’s screaming, to Circo, the manufacturer of said owl pillow, even though there is no number for Circo anywhere, given that it’s just a Target brand.

Since I was Not About to Call Anyone Else About This Stupid Pillow anyway, at this point, I dunno how, the pillow got thrown into the air into the middle of the children’s clothing department, where it would do no one any harm. I told Maya that the owl was nocturnal, and had flown to its nest for “night-night.” After a few concluding sobs, that seemed to end the question and the ensuing crisis, with both of us a just little less wise for the wear.

Misadventure Number 2:

I was always one of those snobs who could not believe that kids and their stuff could fully occupy my friends’ living rooms, leaving no trace of adult life. Like all of my pre-actual-parenting judgments, however, this one bit the dust as soon as I was the one with a child. It’s just so much more convenient to have them in earshot and right off the kitchen, so that you might hear if they are choking on something with a few seconds to spare.

Nonetheless, now that M is less likely to sample the flavors of choking-sized objects, and there is the impending arrival of my new, less-chemical couch, I hatched a tentative plan to Take Back my living room. This involves, by aesthetic necessity, selling the insta-Romper Room primary-color plastic fence around the raised marble edges of the fireplace, and replacing it with some kind of cushion to protect foreheads and the like from its sharp corners.

(Although the fence is plastic, I bought the thing in Maya’s early crawling days, when a rounded-edge, musical contraption looked like a decent option. She didn’t chew on it (much), and the tunes do allow us to experience her awesome dance moves. It’s since dawned on me that there are other gates made of metal or wood to do this job (like this one, which I have not tried). Now that I’m further down my own personal anti-plastics highway, I might have used those instead.)

I recalled the One Step Ahead catalog had some hearth options for child-proofing, including strips for $30 and a large mat for $130. Not cheap, and then I saw the following:

Made of flame resistant, FDA-approved non-toxic dense foam with self-adhesive hook ‘n loop.

As we know, putting “non-toxic” and “flame resistant” in the same sentence is a form of ultimately meaningless — albeit tragically entertaining — noise, much like a Vice Presidential debate.

But actually, it’s not as funny. This picture of a large hearth pad made of flame retardant polyurethane foam with a child playing in front of it literally makes me want to choke. Well-intentioned parents who want to protect their child from both fire and physical injury will buy this hundred-smackerooni-plus pad, thinking that they are doing the best for their family, and will instead be bringing in yet another source of very exposed toxic chemicals into their home. Yeesh.

And I would guess, though this is just a guess, that the corner cushions on our glass-topped dining room table are also made of flame-retardant doused polyurethane (i.e., “PU”) foam, which is just great to have around at mealtimes, I’m sure.

In the living room, I was not about to give up the modest toxicity of our hard plastic fence to replace it with a new source of flame retardants to infect our household dust, so for a minute my reclaiming-adult-living project threatened to go off the rails entirely. Then I found this utterly sketchy product on Ebay of all places — corner cushions made of PE (polyethylene) straight from Hong Kong, for about $9 per package: THICK 2m Table Edge/Corne​r Cushion Softener Guard Protector Bumper Baby Safety.

No mention of flame retardants, though they do claim to be “non-toxic and environmentally friendly.” I’m not sure how that works, exactly. Not being born yesterday, I know this foam is not eco-friendly at all, but as it is a “needed” safety item, I held my nose and ordered it. I’m still awaiting its arrival, and will update the post when it gets here in all its ugly glory.

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The up-shot? All in all, it’s stunning to see how complete the infiltration of these chemical flame retardants is into our lives and the spaces occupied by our children. It’s truly upsetting to think of all the families who are likely not following this arcane battle over toxic flame retardants (i.e., much of sane America) and are bringing this stuff into their homes completely unaware of its risks for them and their children.

And, as with the pillow, the lack of real information on even the simplest product — a pillow, for pete’s sake — is both troubling and problematic. What’s in any of the stuff we buy, anyway, and how was it made? We don’t really begin to know, even if we think we know a few of the questions we should ask.

Ouch, Couch! A Sad Sofa Saga…Part 1

ISO: Someplace (safe and healthy) to sit.

So, it all began sometime after I thought I had done exactly the right thing. (And whenever I get THAT feeling, I should know better.)

A friend of mine who runs an environmental organization wrote me after the New York Times piece came out a few weeks back to say two things: 1) Maya is very cute; 2) I should get rid of my couch.

(Now mind you, she didn’t ask what kind of couch I had, which should have been my first clue that I was asking for a world of trouble. And yes, I do have friends that are that well-meaning in a kinda pushy way. And I like ’em for it.)

I wrote back to say, thanks! And that we have an Ikea couch, which should be fine. And she wrote back to say, think again. Cue record scratch….here.

The issue here is chemical flame retardants, which are in the foam and fabric of upholstered furniture (as well as car seats, and even strollers, which is really dumb. Watch out, the stroller’s on fire!).

I had hoped we had actually solved this issue, because the flame retardants don’t actually stay in the furniture. Research shows that they get into the dust we breathe, and on the floor, where children play and crawl around. They’ve been linked to lowered IQ, cancer, thyroid dysfunction, lowered sperm count in men, you name it. One kind in particular, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDE, still has not been banned in the U.S., and gets a pretty bad rap, particularly as its been found in the blood of American toddlers at levels 3 times higher than even that of their parents (which in turn, is far higher than samples of the chemicals among Europeans).

Turns out, I was misled along with everyone else. Back in 2009 and early 2010, when I was pregnant, I started doing all sorts of reading, which is what you do when you are, literally, the size of a sofa yourself.

I happened to read this passage from the tragi-comically named “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” in which the authors interview a scientist, Heather Stapleton, who was instrumental in showing that the chemicals get into our bodies even though they start off in the furniture:

“Are you careful in your personal life to try and avoid PBDE-laced products?” I asked.

“I am where I can be,” she replied. “For example, I don’t like to have carpets in my home; I prefer hardwood floors…. Ikea has moved away from all halogenated flame retardants, so I try to buy furniture from Ikea.”

Aha, I thought. A solution. So I called the Salvation Army, had them pick up my old couch and haul it away, and looked for a used, fugly Ikea sofa on Craigslist. Not only would I be skipping the flame retardants, I thought, but I’d also be picking it up after the formaldehyde and glues were done off-gassing. I went for their “leather” style, because it was less likely to be treated with stainguard chemicals. Now, that’s thinkin’.

My fugly Ikea sofa

Of course we found one easily, and I turned my attention to oh, having a baby. Until a few weeks ago, when I got that good news/bad news email.

In the meantime, the same Heather Stapleton continued looking into the issue. Given the timing, it was probably the minute after I hung up the phone with my Craigslist guy back in the spring of 2010 that she published her test results regarding what, exactly, were the flame retardants that Ikea and other manufacturers were using instead of PBDEs in furniture.

Surprise! Turns out, Ikea is using a chemical banned from children’s pajamas after a huge public stink back in the 1970s because it causes cancer and genetic mutations known as “Tris” (or 2,3-dibromopropyl phosphate, for the chemically curious). Back then, they learned that children merely wearing these pjs ended up with flame retardants in their urine. And, according to such radical sources as the National Cancer Institute, Tris is a “potent” cause of cancer, 100 times more powerful than the carcinogens in cigarette smoke. (Source: Slow Death by Rubber Duck, at 102.) This is in my sofa and Ikea pillows, and likely the upholstered chair in my downstairs room from Ikea as well. Grr.

(Stapleton’s tests also showed that foam manufacturers who aren’t using Tris are likely using Firemaster 550, which has never been tested for safety. Firemaster 550, which is hard to say without sounding like you’re at a Monster Truck show, contains bromine, like PBDE. It therefore has a very manly name considering that it likely reduces sperm count, like a twisted new infertility comic book character.)

Out of the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. Maya plays all over our $%#! sofa all day long. Just today, I caught her licking it, which is gross for a whole number of reasons.

I’ll pick up tomorrow with part 2, in which I gnash my teeth into tiny nubs trying to find a decent replacement for the enormous, toxic, Ikea dust-magnet in my living room.