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Could your child’s car seat be hazardous to her health?You’ve likely made it your priority to know what’s entering your baby’s body—both natural and unnatural. From the food you feed her, to the soap you use to bathe her, you no doubt read labels and familiarize yourself with ingredients before introducing any sort of new product to her. But what about something used as commonly as your baby’s car seat—what could your child could be exposed to there? One consumer research group is aiming to make sure parents are aware of the chemicals that may be contained in the seat material.

HealthyStuff.org, a project of the Michigan-based Ecology Center, looked at more than 150 car seats released this year and analyzed them for the presence of chemicals including bromine, chlorine, lead and other heavy metals that have been linked to allergies, birth defects, and other developmental problems. Using an X-ray fluorescent device, what researchers found was startling: While some seats were found to be virtually free of the most dangerous chemicals, 60 percent contained at least one of the chemicals tested for, though they were not tested to see if the chemicals were being exposed to kids. Interestingly, chemical levels varied between different models of the same make or car seat, usually due to the amount of flame retardant used on different fabrics.

The top ranked chair was the Graco Turbo Booster in the color Anders, which was the only seat tested that was not found to contain any chlorine, bromine or any other potentially harmful metals, according to the study. The next-best ranked were the infant seats the Graco SnugRide 35 in Laguna Bay, the Chicco Keyfit 30 in Limonata and the Combi Shuttle 33 in Cranberry Noche.

The lowest ranked car seats were the Recaro Pro Booster in Blue Opal, because of high levels of bromine and chlorine found in the seat cushion, and the Britax Marathon 70 in Jet Set, due to high bromine levels in the seat and clip, the study said. Even so, the center found a 64 percent improvement between this year’s seats and previous tests done in 2008.

So how exactly do these chemicals end up harming your child? According to a statement released on the organization’s website, heat and UV-ray exposure in cars can accelerate the breakdown of these chemicals and possibly increase their toxicity. Because babies systems are still developing, and they spend so much time in car seats, researchers believe them to be more vulnerable than adults in terms of exposure. Though the results raise some concerns, researchers are quick to remind parents that the car seats’ primary purpose is what’s truly important.

“Car seats save lives,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director of the Ecology Center, in the statement. “It’s absolutely essential that parents put their children in them while driving, regardless of the rating a particular seat received at HealthyStuff.org.”

So, while you may not be able to control what substances are in your child’s car seat, the ratings at HealthyStuff.org can help you decide on one that ranks safest for your baby. Furthermore, here are a few extra precautions you can take to help limit exposure:

Avoid exposure to direct sunlight

Because heat and direct sunlight can speed up the effects of off-gassing, it’s important to try to keep the car as cool as possible. Buy a window shade for the backseats, or, bring the car seat into the house with you when you leave the car, especially during the summer. You may also want to consider airing out your baby’s car seat outside several weeks before using it—just keep in mind that if it sits in sunlight, off-gassing will occur regardless and the chemicals will be released into the environment.

Keep it clean

Clean the car seat’s washable components—clip, base, buckles— with soap and warm water at least once a week. This will help to remove some surface chemicals, as well as clear the seat of some of the germs your baby’s likely to encounter.

Cover it up

Another option is to cover the car seat with a barrier cloth. Barrier cloth is a dense cotton cloth usually found in dust mite covers. It’s specifically designed to keep out dust, germs, and chemical odors, and the organic variety can be purchased for about $30 per yard in fabric stores and online, making it easy to create a sort of slipcover for your baby’s car seat. Just be sure that it’s not at all loose so your baby is unable to chew on it or pull it over her face. Feeling really crafty? Try making your own seat cover with a fun pattern to add a personal touch (you can find instructions on how to do this here).

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