So, I've got this potentially toxic car seat on my hands (see my previous post). Now what? It would be foolish to throw it out -- car seats save lives. My child is still better off with the seat than without one.
If I were in the market to buy a new car seat, I would cross-check safety ratings with the list at www.healthystuff.org. While they have not checked for all potentially dangerous chemicals, they have based their ratings on the level of lead, cadmium, chlorine, arsenic, bromine, and mercury found in the car seats. (These substances have been linked to allergies, birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, and cancer.) You can find seats that perform well in crash tests and in toxicity tests, but it's not easy to find a perfect fit, especially when you have to look at cost, size, functionality, and availability.
One thing to watch out for is that the same manufacturers, including Graco and Britax, have models on both the ten best list and the ten worst list for toxic chemicals. Make sure you check the model name of your car seat -- you can't rely on the brand name alone. The list also shows that even expensive brands like Recaro aren't necessarily the least toxic.
If you're in my shoes and you're already stuck with your car seat purchase, here's how you can help protect your child. The good thing is you're probably doing some of this stuff already.
1. Vacuum the seat and the entire car interior regularly with a HEPA-filter vacuum. This will not only remove stray cookie crumbs, but also the toxic chemicals that get attached to fine dust particles, which your child can inhale or ingest.
2. Wipe down the seat and the entire car interior with a damp cloth or a microfiber cloth to prevent dust from flying around. (You need to get the jelly smears off anyway, right?)
3. Wash your child's hands with soap and water every time he gets out of the car seat. Kids have a higher exposure to toxic chemicals because they are constantly putting their fingers in their mouths. Keep those little hands clean and you'll reduce your child's exposure to toxic chemicals in general. (Avoid "antibacterial" soap -- it's not any better than regular soap, and it contains chemicals called triclosan and triclocarban, which have been shown to interfere with hormone production.)
4. Air out the car after sun exposure. If you've parked your car in the sun, the heat can encourage the release of toxic chemicals from upholstery and even the car interior. Open up doors and windows and let the car air out before you drive off.
5. Demand stronger consumer protections. Why is it even possible to buy a car seat that's laced with toxic chemicals? It's because the chemical industry has been allowed to bring tens of thousands of chemicals onto the market while providing little-to-no information about their health effects. The current law that is supposed to protect us from toxic chemicals puts the burden on the EPA to test them. In 35 years, they've tested 200 chemicals, and chosen to regulate just five. That's right. You can count them on one hand.
"This is a problem you can't shop your way out of," says Sarah Janssen, an NRDC scientist who tracks toxic chemicals. Janssen says she cross-checked Consumer Reports and the Healthy Stuff list and had trouble finding the right car seat for her four-year-old, who insisted that she be able to buckle herself. "In the end I wasn't able to find the 'perfect' car seat, but I was able to rule out some of the worst offenders. Even if you do find a car seat that meets all your needs, the same toxic chemicals can be found in the car itself, in the upholstery and the interior."
Well, that's totally depressing. But here's some good news: Congress is considering a new law -- the Safe Chemicals Act -- that would do a much better job of protecting us, says Janssen. It could keep toxic chemicals out of car seats, baby seats, furniture -- maybe even out of our lives? The new law would require the chemical industry to prove that their chemicals are safe for use, to establish strong health standards to protect children, and to strengthen the public's right to know about chemical safety.
Janssen's right. We can't shop our way out of this problem. We need a new law that shifts the burden of sniffing out toxic chemicals from tired moms onto the chemical industry. For that reason, I urge you to tell your senator to stand up for kids and parents and co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act.
Image: Patty Arndt