Q&A: Chemical Flame Retardants?

  • December 19, 2012 9:43 am



I recently sent an email to members of my family as they shop for holiday and baby gifts, including fleece footed pjs. I’m sending part of it to you below. There has been some backlash. Was this overkill? I did ask them to try not to take it personally. I just don’t want to expose the baby to harm.

Here is some info on flame retardants that I think important to share. When thinking about buying gifts, please keep in mind that if there is a label on the product that indicates that it is in accordance with California state regulation 117, or is made with any type of foam in conjunction with the product not being labeled as organic, or is labeled as “flame retardant,” please think twice before buying it.

Thanks for your thoughts.



Dear Sarah,

This is a real concern. The overkill part largely depends on your family.

There are flame retardants basically in all foam products (they’re made from petroleum and so are very flammable), even fleece pajamas. It is good common sense not to go out of your way to purchase and place unneeded foam around your baby, though it is unavoidable in things like car seats. It’s of course more important to have a car seat than to minimize exposure to flame retardants in foam, in terms of risk factor.

Flame retardants are in such wide use that these things are found in the blood/bodies of almost all Americans, which is why it’s a good idea to expose yourself to less of them if and when you can, especially since at the moment they’re almost impossible to avoid in couches and other upholstered furniture (though there are some indications this may get better soon). So it’s easier said than done to avoid entirely, but you can minimize. They’re in this computer I’m typing on, too, by the way.
How you speak to your own family is largely an issue of personality and pre-established relationships. I have ways of addressing these issues individually with the various members of my own family. I do know that feelings get hurt when anyone rejects a well-intentioned present. And tempers flare when gift givers are told what they bought or what they want to buy is toxic. It’s an odd thing. At this point my own family members are very careful about what they buy for us and our daughter. I know it’s a burden for them. Some let me know this more than others. Some just do what they want. I have smiled and thanked countless people, then returned or exchanged my fair share of foam-filled things and fleece everything over the years. No one noticed (that I know of), and no hard feelings. Just saying.
If you’re looking for some good reading to share, The Chicago Tribune has been working on a great investigative series on flame retardants this year. Well worth emailing around and then it’s the reporters doing the lecturing, not you. Which is a good thing.

Q&A: Mattresses, Mattresses, Mattresses

  • January 9, 2012 11:15 am

I’m behind in answering questions. So here are a few quickies, both mattress-related.


Hi Alexandra,

I discovered your website when searching for organic/natural mattresses. Like yourself, I practice green living, and I was appalled at all of the chemicals when my husband and I started searching for a mattress a few months ago. After purchasing and returning a temprapedic, we are still in the market for a mattress. To what extent have you researched mattresses and the wool, cotton, latex in them?
Have a wonderful new year!



Hi Birgit,
Thanks for getting in touch. It’s great you’ll be replacing the foam. Did you happen to see this earlier post about mattresses on my site? I’ve been writing about mattresses on and off since 2005 when I first researched The Complete Organic Pregnancy. Wool, cotton, and natural latex can all be great alternatives. Hopefully you can find a store near you that stocks these mattresses so you can try them out for softness/hardness. Many stores do now have them.

Hope this helps. Happy sleeping.



Hi ,

I found your blog, when I was searching for the green furniture for my future baby, so I decided to email you. I’m looking for a organic and hypoallergenic mattress, but there are so many options on the market. Any suggestions?





See above — hope you saw the earlier post I wrote about mattresses. If you’re buying pretty much any organic mattress, you’re already setting your baby up for better breathing space in her room. That said, you’re right, there are tons on the market. If you have a store near you that stocks them, head on out and ask questions. Push on them, sit on them, see how you feel. Is it too soft? Soft isn’t said to be great for babies. Does it feel nice and hard? Find out what is being used as the flame retardant and what else is in there.

Though I have mentioned brand names in the past, and have linked to stores in some of the links on that last blog, I’m not overly fond of naming names. Manufacturing issues arise and materials can change. It’s always best to zero in on the materials you want (hypoallergenic and organic), then find a brand that sells mattresses made with those materials. From there you can call up manufacturers and ask further questions you might have. Some so called organic mattresses now have third party certification–an added layer of trust since the word organic is really only regulated when it comes to food.

It’s a good problem to have too many organic options to choose from. This wasn’t always the case. This way you’re guaranteed to find the right version for you.



The Princess and the PBDE?

  • February 8, 2011 3:45 pm

I’ve gotten several queries from readers lately about safe mattresses. So I thought I’d rehash some of the things I have written about them in the past (like several posts I wrote a few years back for TheDailyGreen.com), and give some pointers from my latest book, Planet Home. I think “organic” crib mattresses are a must for new babies, especially as parents tend to be shopping for a new crib mattress then anyway. Skip the extraneous gear you think you might need for a new baby and use the savings on a safe crib mattress. And protect that mattress with a wool — not plastic — puddle pad.

From Planet Home:

“Mattresses are the number one concern in a bedroom because most contain foam. Most foams are polyuerthane, a petroleum-based, nonrenewable, and highly flammable resource that requires more flame retardants than other mattress materials. By law, all mattresses in the United States must contain some sort of flame retardant so they meet cigarette-ignition resistance as well as address open-flame heat sources. While federal flammability laws have prevented many deaths and injuries resulting from mattress fires, some of the chemicals used to meet the requirements are harmful to our health and the environment. The worst are brominated flame retardants (BFRs) called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Some versions of these are banned in the E.U. and are slowly being phased out Stateside. This is good news, because they are not only potentially carcinogenic but are also reproductive toxicants and endocrine disruptors. They escape from mattresses and then basically piggyback on the dust particles in our homes. Due to their widespread use in everything from mattresses to electronics to upholstered furniture, PBDEs can be found in the blood of just about every American, as well as in breast milk, at levels higher than those found in citizens of other countries.

Considering their ubiquity, it makes sense to reduce exposure to PBDEs in mattresses, especially if you’re of reproductive age, pregnant, a kid, or have small kids sleeping with you. Pound for pound, children are exposed to higher levels of these chemicals than adult bodies are, and at vulnerable moments of development.

Find out what your current mattress is made of and what flame retardants it contains. It won’t be enough to read the Do Not Remove tag on it; call the manufacturer and ask about the flame retardants, materials, stain guards, and mold inhibitors used.”

For more thoughts on choosing, buying, and maintaining your mattress, turn to pages 98 to 103 of Planet Home.