If you want a picture of purity, take one of a newborn sleeping because nothing says "wholesome" better than a peaceful baby nestled all snug in its bed. Unless, of course, that bed contains the chemical known as chlorinated Tris.
Because some do. Tests of crib mattresses conducted for the Chicago Tribune showed that many contained this toxic flame retardant.
If Tris sounds familiar, you're remembering the 1970s, when brominated Tris was banned as a flame retardant in children's pajamas, and its chemical cousin, chlorinated Tris, was voluntarily removed as well, though not legally prohibited.
Most of us thought those changes were the last word on this particular boogeyman, but he's still going bump in the night. The Tribune bought a variety of popular brand mattresses from leading retailers and had them tested for chlorinated Tris. Over 40%—11 out of 27 tested—had what the paper termed "significant" amounts of the chemical.
And crib mattresses aren't the only source of Tris in Toyland. A 2011 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found Tris in all kinds of polyurethane foam baby products from nursing pillows and car seats to highchairs and changing pads.
Tris is added to foam products like these to help them meet regulations requiring them to withstand open flame. That's a challenge because on their own most foams are about as fire-resistant as a bucket of gasoline. So manufacturers add large quantities of flame suppressors like Tris to meet flammability regulations.
There are several forms of chlorinated Tris. One form, TDCPP, is suspected of disrupting hormones, lowering fertility, causing cancer, and damaging brain cells. The Environmental Protection Agency considers TDCPP a moderate cancer hazard while the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission lists it as a probable human carcinogen [pdf]. Other forms like TCEP and TCPP are not as well-studied, but are so closely related on a molecular level they’re suspected of similar crimes.
Fortunately, new Consumer Product Safety Commission regulations adopted in 2007 now measure flame-resistance in different ways, and that's opened the door to safer flame-proofing strategies that don’t turn our furniture into Superfund sites. Until those methods become widespread, however, chemicals will remain in foam products. Here's what precautionary parents should know:
- The mattresses in the Tribune tests that contained Tris were all made in China. Buying American-made mattresses appears to greatly lower the risk of exposure.
- Lots of other foam children's products contain Tris, too. And foams can expose our families to brominated flame retardants like PBDEs, whose phase-out is not yet complete. The safest bet is to skip foam products entirely and choose mattresses stuffed with natural fibers. Yes, they cost significantly more, but your baby won't be the only one sleeping better.
- Another option is to look for the new generation of non-chemically-treated mattresses that use options like inert barrier cloths to encase flammable mattress foams in a fire-resistant fabric shell.
- Be wary of any salesperson claiming that a mattress is safe because the foam inside is sealed in impermeable plastic. Push your hand down on the mattress—if air escapes, any chemicals like Tris hiding inside are escaping, too.
A healthy night's sleep needn’t be a pipe dream. We parents just have to watch out for the monsters under the bed.