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Children’s Toxic Pajamas

It’s that time of year again when we shop for soft, cute, and cuddly children’s toxic pajamas, nightgowns, and even robes. However, did you know that a LOT of them contain toxic flame retardant chemicals?! These chemicals are not good for our children to breathe or wear! Although the use of these chemicals on children’s sleepwear is well-intentioned, is it really necessary in this day and age? I hope this blog explains enough so you can at least be aware and know how to identify flame-retardant-free pajamas.

Believe it or not, this legislation has been going on in America for close to 50 years!! There are very strict outdated laws and legislation that control these requirements. It’s very confusing but basically the government determined that certain fabrics used in children’s sleepwear needed to be flame resistant. In 1975 it was a different time and many more people smoked indoors. The government was also concerned about open flames from candles and space heaters.  

This is the test that all fabrics used in children’s sleepwear have to abide by. If a fabric does not pass the “char test,” then it needs to contain flame-resistant chemicals. The “char test” consists of holding a fabric next to an open flame (1.5 inch high) for 3 seconds. If the fabric has more than a 7-inch char length, then it is considered to fail the “char test.” 

The following fabrics always pass the test so DO NOT have to apply chemical flame retardants: Acrylics, Modacrylic, Nylon, Olefin, Polyester, and Wool.1 The fabrics listed are all synthetic except wool and they have other problems so I would not recommend them for sleepwear. In addition, there is a dark side to polyester due to its plastic origins. Polyester comes as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and UPR (unsaturated polyester).1  Neither sounds healthy to wear to me!! Anything with “phthalates” is another class of toxic compounds that mimics hormones and can bind and disrupt our hormones. Not only does polyester “not breathe” but there is some questioning whether or not polyester fabrics have flame retardant chemicals added into the material during manufacturing. In addition, polyester has been shown to melt when exposed to fire and could cause a serious burn.1 

Cotton is flammable but the exception is that if the pajamas are snug-fitting they are not as likely to catch fire on an open flame. Hence for snug-fitting cotton pajamas, the manufacturers DO NOT have to apply flame retardant chemicals. This has been the requirement since 1996.  From 1975- 1996 or so, all cotton was treated with flame-retardant chemicals. They also changed the age/size requirements in 1996 so that under 9 months and over 14 years sizes are exempt from the flammability requirements.2

The chemicals used as “flame retardants” have a very negative history and have changed over the years. In the 70’s they started using brominated tris (Tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate). Then that chemical got outlawed as it was found to mutate DNA; therefore, they began using a new class called “chlorinated tris.” According to the Prop 65 website, “Tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl)phosphate (also known as chlorinated tris, TDCPP, and TDCIPP) is on the Proposition 65 list because it can cause cancer.” Since the 70’s this chemical class has been shown to be harmful in over 3000 studies.1 Unfortunately, chlorinated tris are still used today in some furniture as well as infant products.3

The next group of chemicals used as flame retardants in children’s sleepwear up to 2005 is called Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs). According to the CDC’s website, “These chemicals can get into the air, water, and soil during their manufacture; they can leak from products that contain them or escape when the products that contain them break down. They do not dissolve easily in water; they stick to particles and settle to the bottom of rivers or lakes. Some PBDEs can build up in certain fish and mammals when they eat contaminated food or water.”4 Another concern to humans is that these chemicals and so many others, build up in the dust particles in a home, and then we breathe them. The effects on human health are downplayed on the CDC website but they do admit to having “some effects on the thyroid and liver, as well as on brain development.”4

Other products that may contain PBDEs are furniture foam padding; wire insulation; rugs, draperies, and upholstery; and plastic cabinets for televisions, personal computers, and small appliances.4

“Under intense pressure from Environmental Working Group (EWG), other public health groups and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Great Lakes Chemical Corp. (now Chemtura Corp.) voluntarily halted production of two PBDE commercial mixtures in 2004. In 2009, after more negotiations with the EPA, two producers and one importer of fire retardant chemicals—Chemtura, Albemarle Corp., and ICL Industrial Products, Inc.— agreed to stop the use of a third PBDE commercial mixture by the end of 2013.”5

Currently, the chemicals that are used are likely organophosphate (OPFRs) flame retardant chemicals which also have a poor safety profile. In a recent study of 132 healthy pregnant women, the researchers found these chemicals in 50-100% of samples. They concluded that “PFASs and OPFRs (flame-resistant chemicals) may contribute to placenta-mediated complications and adverse maternal-fetal health risks.”6  

It seems that the legislators just keep exchanging one toxic chemical class for another. As the years go by and data is collected, then that chemical class is banned and a new similar one is rolled in. This is an ongoing cycle and this scenario plays out with other chemical classes like glyphosate and weed killers, BPA and plastics, etc., etc. It’s like a game of catch-up. The research showing harm has to catch up with the new chemical to make the case for banning that chemical.  Also, another issue is that even though a chemical or class is banned in one thing like children’s sleepwear, it is still used on other products like furniture that persist in people’s houses for decades!!!

As a concerned new parent years ago, when I first learned about this issue, I found an article online that said the only way to remove the flame retardant chemicals from fabrics was to soak them in soap (not laundry soap but bar soap). I would soak my children’s new soft pajamas or nightgowns for days. I had no idea if it helped remove them but it did make me feel better. However, in retrospect, I think the best bet is to avoid these chemicals or synthetic fabric at all costs!

So, the bottom line is:

  1. Buy organic cotton sleepwear if you can. Most but NOT ALL will be free of these chemicals. Still need to investigate tags or online listing information.
  2. In stores, look for the yellow tag on all children’s sleepwear sizes 9 months to 14 years. If there is NO TAG then assume it has flame retardant chemicals. If it is fleece/microfleece or polyester then it may not have chemicals but these are synthetic fabrics that just make your child sweaty anyway so steer clear of them.
  3. Online, always look for additional information to see if it says anything about flame retardants/flame resistance.
  4. Assume anything “plush” or super soft has chemicals including robes. 
  5. Avoid buying ALL nightgowns because they ALL either have these chemicals or are synthetic fabrics.
  6. Buy sizes outside of the range of 9 months to 14 if possible.
  7. Stick with “tight-fitting” cotton pajamas instead of nightgowns. Buy a couple of sizes bigger to fit in these “tight-fitting” pajamas and remember, they will shrink in the dryer so another reason to buy them in bigger sizes.

These fire retardant chemicals have been linked to infertility, cancer, hormone disruption, memory and learning issues, as well as delayed mental and physical development.7 They should NOT be allowed in children’s sleepwear or on any other products!

If these chemicals are causing more harm than good to our developing children, in and outside the womb, then we need to ask ourselves, why do we still have such legislation? Although these laws are well-intentioned, are they still necessary in 2023 and beyond? 

Sources:

  1. https://www.kitchenstewardship.com/non-toxic-childrens-pajamas/
  2. https://www.cpsc.gov/Newsroom/News-Releases/1996/CPSC-Votes-To-Amend-Childrens-Sleepwear-Regulation
  3. https://www.p65warnings.ca.gov/fact-sheets/chlorinated-tris
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/pbdes_biomonitoringsummary
  5. https://www.ewg.org/research/no-escape
  6. Varshavsky JR, Robinson JF, Zhou Y, Puckett KA, Kwan E, Buarpung S, Aburajab R, Gaw SL, Sen S, Gao S, Smith SC, Park JS, Zakharevich I, Gerona RR, Fisher SJ, Woodruff TJ. Organophosphate Flame Retardants, Highly Fluorinated Chemicals, and Biomarkers of Placental Development and Disease During Mid-Gestation. Toxicol Sci. 2021 May 27;181(2):215-228. doi: 10.1093/toxsci/kfab028. PMID: 33677611; PMCID: PMC8163039.
  7. Gross, L. (2013, April 15). Flame retardants in Consumer Products are Linked to Health and Cognitive Problems. Retrieved from (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/flame-retardants-in-consumer-products-are-linked-to-health-and-cognitive-)

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