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What You Need to Know about Flame Retardants on Children’s Clothing

As we head into the holiday season with cold weather, you might be considering buying your children new pajamas. When buying children’s pajamas, you are faced with a choice. A choice as to whether you want to buy pajamas treated with flame retardants or not. Whether that matters to you is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself. But at least you should understand the options.

First, let’s understand that pajamas for children need to meet certain flammability requirements to prevent the risk injury from fires. For the most part, the risk is a loose sleeve or pant cuff catching an open flame, such as a candle. So, sleepwear intended for children between the ages of 9 months and 14 years must meet specific flammability requirements. Note that sleepwear for children under the age of 9 months is not subject to the requirement. This is because babies have limited mobility, are not expected to be unsupervised for long, and are not likely to catch a sleeve or pant cuff on an open flame.

If you are buying sleepwear for children between the ages of 9 months and 14 years, whether you have chemical flame retardants depends on what you buy. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) considers flame retardant treated pajamas to be safe. Generally, the chemicals used on pajamas or pajama fabrics include chlorinated and brominated flame retardants, inorganic flame retardants such as antimony oxides, and phosphate-based compounds. In the 1970s, the CPSC banned brominated Tris and removed chlorinated Tris from being used on children’s pajamas after they were found to mutate DNA and identified as probable human carcinogens. These chemicals were removed from children’s sleepwear after it was found that children were exposed from their treated sleepwear. So, these two particular chemicals won’t be used, but what is actually used on pajamas is difficult to discover: just try asking a retailer what particular flame retardant is used on any particular item of sleepwear.

Unfortunately, chlorinated and brominated flame retardants are contaminating the environment and accumulating in the human body. For example, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been linked to damage to the nervous and reproductive systems and impairing thyroid function. And you generally can’t tell what flame retardant is being used on any particular clothing item. And you can’t really wash the flame retardants out. The regulations require that the fabrics demonstrate their flame resistance after being laundered at least 50 times.

But you can avoid flame retardants in pajamas and still have pajamas that are safe from the risk of fire.

To meet the regulatory flammability requirements, children’s sleepwear must either pass certain flammability tests, or be tight fitting and meet certain specifications as to dimensions. This means that your child’s pajamas either have flame retardants added or are snug-fitting and probably free of flame retardants. So, you can have snug fitting pajamas without chemical flame retardants and be safer from the risk of fire.

To tell the difference check the fabric content. Look at the label and see what is identified as the primary fabric used. If the item is sleepwear and it is made of a synthetic fiber, it has flame retardants. All synthetic materials have flame retardants added. The issue for synthetic fabrics is whether the sleepwear is “chemically treated” or not. Only some sleepwear is “chemically treated” with flame retardants. Chemically treated fabrics have a chemical flame retardant added to the sleepwear. These sleepwear items include nylon and acetate fabrics.

However, most synthetic fiber sleepwear has a flame retardant inserted into the fabric fiber, including most polyester fabrics, as opposed to the fabric being “chemically treated” with a flame retardant. Fiber with flame retardants inserted into the fabric fiber are considered chemically stable. These manufacturers may claim that the sleepwear is not treated with a chemical flame retardant, and that’s true. The sleepwear is not “chemically treated.” But that doesn’t mean it is free of flame retardants. If children’s sleepwear is synthetic, flame retardant is present, whether the fabric is treated with flame retardant or the flame retardant is bonded to the fiber.

To avoid flame retardants in children’s sleepwear altogether (other than making your own) you can purchase snug fitting natural fiber pajamas, such as cotton. (And to be green and avoid pesticide residues, buy organic natural fiber cotton with low-impact dyes.) Sleepwear that is snug fitting meets flammability standards by being tight enough to a child’s body that no stray sleeve can catch fire, and also by not allowing extra air between the fabric and the skin to promote the fire’s growth if accidentally started. How can you tell if the cotton sleepwear in question is flame retardant free? Look for the hang tag that says “must be snug fitting” and “not flame resistant.” Last year, Costco had some fabulous organic, snug-fitting, flame retardant free pajamas. Snug fitting natural fiber pajamas are also available at Target, Gymboree, New Jammies, and many others. (The author has no relationship whatsoever with any of the previously mentioned companies…other than she has shopped at them.)

But be warned. It isn’t enough to just look for natural fibers. Some natural fibers are actually treated with chemical flame retardants. These are generally sold as “flame resistant cotton” and generally do not have the hang tag that says “must be snug fitting.” Instead, these pajamas will generally be labeled as flame resistant cotton. You may see cotton sleepwear advertised as containing Proban, which is made from tetrakis(hydroxymethyl)phosphonium chloride, or THPC. Studies have shown low migration from sleepwear, but the chemical used in the process is associated with genetic abnormalities and damage to the liver, skin and nervous system. Securest is another name for Proban-treated fabric. If you see flame-resistant 100% cotton, then that cotton has flame retardants. If you don’t want flame retardants, then always look for the specific key phrases “must be snug fitting” and “not flame resistant.”

Posted by TheSmartMama on October 13, 2009 

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