Dangers of Flame Retardant Chemicals on Kids’ Clothing

As parents, there is a never-ending flood of advice, information, and cautions coming at you from all angles. We all want what’s best for our children. But in a sea of mixed information, it’s easy to fall into fear-traps peddled by manufacturing companies.

One of these traps is fire retardant clothing and linens.

little boy in bed asleep

The logic behind flame retardant clothing, bed linens, and mattresses makes sense. What parent wouldn’t want to take extra steps to ensure that, in the event of a fire, their child is as well protected as possible?

What Are Flame Retardants?

Flame retardants are chemicals added to or applied to products with the intent of preventing or slowing the start of a fire. Some common chemicals used include the Lhalogenated hydrocarbons chlorine and bromine. They’ve been in use since the 1970s. You usually find them in the following products:

  • Children’s clothing, especially pajamas
  • Bed linens and mattress covers
  • Children’s mattresses
  • Car seat covers
  • Nursing pillows
  • Transportation products, such as the seats and carpeting of automobiles and airplanes
  • Building and construction materials, including electrical wires and insulation materials

Are Flame Retardants Safe?

A British study, presented in 2012 at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society, showed that not only do flame retardants present significant health concerns, but some also increase the risk of death in the event of a house fire.

matchstick house on fire

The chemicals used to make flame retardants can increase the danger of invisible toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, which is the leading cause of death in fires.

Flame Retardants Health Effects on Children and Mothers

A study conducted by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and researchers at Duke University showed evidence of exposure to commonly used flame retardant chemical TDCIPP (Tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl)phosphate) in the bodies of all mothers and children tested during the study.

The average concentration of chemical biomarkers in the children was nearly five times higher than the average concentration in the mothers.

The higher concentration, it is speculated, may be due to greater susceptibility in children, or may be due to the fact that children are simply more consistently exposed. Placing hands, toys, and clothing into their mouths and crawling on the floor increases their contact with the chemicals.

Regardless of the causes at play, this research clearly demonstrated that the flame retardant chemicals are absorbed into the bodies of our most vulnerable — mothers and children.

Flame Retardant Side Effects

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences cites a growing body of evidence that many flame retardant chemicals are linked to adverse health effects in both animals and humans. These include:

  • Endocrine and thyroid disruption
  • Damaged immune system
  • Reproductive toxicity
  • Cancer
  • Adverse effects on fetal and child development
  • Reduced neurologic function
  • Infertility
  • Kidney and liver damage

During a fire, the chemicals and combustion byproducts result in toxic smoke clouds. These invisible gases pose serious health risks for firefighters, surrounding homes and families, and the environment.

female firefighter suiting up

Firefighter Adam Cosner of Santa Clara Co. Firefighters recently stated in an interview that firefighters are contracting cancer at an alarming rate, and that flame retardant chemicals are part of that problem.

Research on Health Effects of Flame Retardants

  • Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley found that an increase in levels of brominated flame retardant compounds in pregnant mother’s blood was linked to drops in the baby’s birth weight.
  • The Berkeley study also shows that high levels of brominated flame retardants can alter pregnant women’s thyroid hormone levels, which are critical to a baby’s growth and brain development.
  • The study performed by the EWG and Duke University linked Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) replacements, TDCIPP and Firemaster® 550 to hormonal changes and decreased semen quality in men.
    PBDEs have also been found to persist in the environment and are associated with neurodevelopmental issues in children. They also affect the thyroid function of pregnant mothers.

More Hidden Chemicals — Again

If you’ve read our other articles on hidden chemicals, such as this one, you know that manufacturers are able to get away with leaving a lot of information off their labels. Unfortunately, it’s the same with flame retardant chemicals.

While the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) requires the flame retardant chemicals used in children’s clothing to be nontoxic, manufacturers aren’t required to indicate what chemicals are used — if any. So, when shopping for your children, you may be purchasing chemical-coated clothing without even being aware of it.

What to Do With Fire Retardant Clothing and Linens

We’d suggest throwing them out. However, if you’re like many American parents, replacing so many items in a short period of time may not be an option.


So, here’s how to be as safe as possible when it comes to handling and laundering fire retardant materials.

  • Outfit your sleepy kids with tight-fitting natural fiber pajamas instead of looser flame-retardant pajamas. Cotton, bamboo, hemp, and linen are all good choices for natural fibers. Tight clothing prevents air from moving between the skin and fabric, making it more difficult for fabrics to ignite.
  • Choose organic clothing options when possible. The same goes for bedding! If you can’t afford organic, try to find clothing made from natural fibers instead of synthetic.
  • Wash flame retardant garments and linens separately to avoid contaminating other garments. Use the hottest setting safe for the garment. Hot water can make detergents more effective in the removal of soils, which can act as fuel in the event of a fire. Dry on low.baby girl loading dryer
  • Choose a natural laundry detergent. Never use products that contain bleach or animal fats as these ingredients are highly flammable. Avoid chemical-laden fabric softeners and dryer sheets.
  • Want more suggestions? The EGW has more ideas on how to protect your home from unnecessary chemical exposure.


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