Ask the Doctor: Are Flame Retardants Safe?

Question: I’m confused about what my baby should wear to sleep. Flame retardants are toxic—but shouldn’t he be protected from fire?

Answer: Fire prevention is the best protection (watch those candles), but flame- retardant sleepwear is what the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends to be as safe as possible. While it’s true that some flame retardants (like polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDE’s) have been linked to endocrine disruption and neurodevelopmental concerns, PBDE’s aren’t used in children’s sleepwear anymore (though they still can be found in some mattresses, furniture, and electronics). Most sleepwear today is cotton and is made with a different class of flame retardants, such as polyester; these flame retardants are woven into the fibers to limit chemicals leaching out and touching a baby’s skin. While there is no direct evidence that these particular chemicals cause human health problems, the precautionary principle guides us to look for the least toxic options.

So what can you do? There are eco-friendly choices that are now approved by the CPSC for fire safety. Snug-fitting, chemical-free cotton or wool pajamas limit oxygen entry and therefore naturally retard flames. Check the labels and look for those made without chemicals; most organic brands fit the bill.

Lawrence D. Rosen, M.D., is the founder of the Whole Child Center in Oradell, New Jersey, one of the first green, integrative primary care practices in the U.S.

Have a question for Dr. Rosen? 
E-mail him at [email protected]