Earlier today, New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg and 22 other senators -- all Democrats -- called for the Environmental Protetion Agency to to take a closer look at flame retardants and evaluate whether the chemicals, which are found in many household products, are harmful.
The action followed the release Tuesday of a report by the Center for Environmental Health, an advocacy organization that works to protect people from chemicals. It found that 22 of 24 nap mats purchased from major retailers and sent to a Duke University researcher for analysis contained flame retardants. Further, 19 of the mats contained more than one flame retardants.
These chemicals have come under criticism from environmental and health groups, which say they have been linked to cancer, genetic damage, impacts on fertility and reproductive health, allergies, hormone disruption.
The Duke researcher was Healther Stapleton, who has studied flame retardants for years.
In 2011, she and some colleagues analyzed foam samples from 101 commonly used baby products, including car seats, strollers, changing table pads, nursing pillows, portable crib mattresses, and infant sleep positioners.
They found flame retardants - some probable carcinogens, some with suspected hormonal effects - in 80 of the samples.
The most common one detected was a chemical referred to as tris, which was removed for safety reasons from kids' pajamas in the 1970s. Some of the recently-tested nap mats also had tris.
Five samples contained PentaPBDE - another type of flame retardant - that has been banned by nine states and the European Union because of concerns about not only its toxicity, but also its effects on the environment.
In a 2008 study, Philadelphia University's Devid Brookstein, dean of the school of engineering and textiles, and Jeffrey Ashley, associate professor of chemistry, also investigated car seats and found potentially toxic flame retardants. But they didn't have equipment that would identify the precise formulations, which is what Stapleton's later study did.
Manufacturers are phasing out some flame retardants. Meanwhile, the pressure grows. Recently, California released a new draft flammability standard that its supporters say would mean furniture companies would not have to use toxic chemicals to meet.
The EPA has been studying flame retardants, but not fast enough for Sen. Lautenberg and his colleagues.
"Flame retardants are mixed into a number of household products in order to raise the temperature at which they begin to burn, purportedly making the products more flame resistant. However, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has found that in many cases these chemicals do not provide any significant protection against the risk of fires," the senators wrote.
"Instead, a growing body of scientific research has found that flame retardant chemicals are toxic, persist in our environment, and accumulate in our bodies. Specifically, the EPA and other authoritative scientific bodies have found that some of these chemicals are linked to cancer as well as serious neurological and reproductive diseases.
"It is particularly concerning that peer-reviewed research shows that a typical American baby is born with the highest recorded blood concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world. Children are exposed to flame retardants primarily through household dust, making babies and toddlers particularly vulnerable since they spend a significant amount of time playing on the floor," they said.
“This is a serious public health concern that requires a risk assessment by EPA.”