Flame retardant linked to cancer found inside mattresses for babies

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CHICAGO -- Three popular brands of baby mattresses marketed in recent months to families and day care centers contained toxic flame retardants linked to increased cancer risk, according to laboratory tests conducted for the Chicago Tribune.

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 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 use of chemicals.

Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist who is 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," she said. "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.

The Tribune tested 27 mattresses. All 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.

But one importer vigorously defended its product. Summer Infant Inc., 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, 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 Ms. Birnbaum and Duke University chemist Heather Stapleton, 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.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is awaiting approval for a broad study of children's exposure to flame retardants in consumer products. Responding to the Tribune, agency officials last week began purchasing the same models tested by the Tribune for their own studies to determine how much chlorinated tris could escape and be absorbed through a baby's skin, ingested or inhaled.

The World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute, the National Research Council and the safety commission have identified TDCPP as a cancer risk. Safety commission researchers in 2006 cautioned that adding TDCPP to upholstered furniture could expose children in their first two years to a cancer risk seven times higher than what most scientists and regulators consider acceptable.

Decades ago, the National Toxicology Program found the second form of chlorinated tris, known as TCEP, to be a cancer risk.

Less is known about the third form of chlorinated tris, known as TCPP. A 2000 report by the National Research Council concluded that TCPP had not been adequately studied for possible health effects. Eight years later, a risk assessment by the European Union concluded that the flame retardant is a possible cancer risk because it is chemically similar to TCEP and TDCPP.

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