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Toxic Baby Furniture:The Latest Case for Making Products Safe from the Start
by Travis Madsen, Frontier Group and Rachel Gibson, Environment California Research & Policy Center
Furnishings containing formaldehyde – a toxic chemical linked with allergies, asthma, and cancer – can contaminate indoor air within California homes. Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to harm.
To evaluate the potential dangers children face, Environment California Research & Policy Center purchased 21 products intended for use in a baby’s nursery and hired a professional laboratory to test them. We found that six of the products produced high levels of formaldehyde vapor. In particular, several brands of cribs and changing tables emit formaldehyde at levels linked with increased risk of developing allergies or asthma.
To protect children from formaldehyde and other chemical hazards, California should adopt a new approach to chemical regulation, encouraging manufacturers to design products that are safe from the start.
Many baby nursery furnishings emit formaldehyde.
- Of the products tested, the Child Craft Oak Crib emitted the largest amount of formaldehyde. The crib includes a drawer made from composite wood, which is often manufactured using formaldehyde-based glue.
- Other products with high formaldehyde emissions included the Bridget 4-in-1 Crib by Delta, the Kayla II Changing Table by Storkcraft, the Berkley Changing Table by Jardine Enterprises, the Country Style Changing Table by South Shore Furniture, and the Rochester Cognac Crib by Storkcraft.
- The remaining 15 products tested – including the Olympia Single Crib by Jardine Enterprises; several wastebaskets, lamps, and shelves made with composite wood; and several window valances and wall hangings – emitted relatively low amounts of formaldehyde.
A baby sleeping in a nursery furnished with a high-emission crib and changing table may face an increased risk of developing allergies and/or asthma.
- A new single-family home furnished with only a Child Craft Oak Crib and a Storkcraft Kayla II Changing Table would have indoor formaldehyde levels of about 30 ppb on average throughout the whole house. A less spacious unit in a new apartment building would have indoor formaldehyde levels as high as 52 ppb. (See Table ES-1.) These estimates exclude any additional formaldehyde emissions from building materials or other pieces of furniture within the home.
- Studies have shown that chronic exposure to formaldehyde at levels greater than 16 ppb in indoor air is linked with an increased likelihood of respiratory symptoms (such as coughing) and/or allergic sensitization in children. Indoor formaldehyde levels greater than 50 ppb have been associated with an increased risk of diagnosed asthma.
- Formaldehyde appears to have a large impact on children’s respiratory health. For example, in one study, 16 percent of children in homes with formaldehyde levels less than 16 ppb had diagnosed asthma, while 44 percent had asthma in homes with indoor formaldehyde concentrations greater than 40 ppb.
- Moreover, contamination levels could be higher close to the source of emissions. For example, in a lightly ventilated nursery furnished with a Child Craft Oak Crib, formaldehyde levels could be as high as 75 ppb. Formaldehyde exposure could be even higher for an infant actually sleeping in the crib, very close to the source of emissions.
Formaldehyde exposure can cause cancer in the long term.
- The State of California and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classify formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.
- Under Proposition 65, California has determined that exposure to formaldehyde at 40 micrograms per day (equivalent to an indoor concentration of about 2 ppb) results in a 1 in 100,000 lifetime risk of cancer. Individually, the Child Craft Oak Crib, the Bridget 4-in-1 Crib, the Kayla II Changing Table, the Berkley Changing Table, the Country Style Changing Table, and the Rochester Cognac Crib each contain enough formaldehyde to contaminate an entire home with levels of formaldehyde greater than this threshold.
Formaldehyde is just one example of how the chemical regulatory system fails to protect children from health hazards.
- Inadequate resources and legal authority often prevent regulatory agencies from taking protective action – even where significant evidence of harm to public health already exists. For example, federal regulators first became aware of links between formaldehyde vapor and respiratory health problems more than 30 years ago. However, stiff resistance from the chemical industry in the early 1980s largely thwarted new rules on formaldehyde emissions. Moreover, California declared formaldehyde to be a toxic air contaminant in 1992 – yet 16 years passed before the state successfully issued a regulation to limit emissions from composite wood.
- In addition to formaldehyde, about 1,400 chemicals on the market today have known or suspected links to cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. And tens of thousands more have not been adequately tested for health impacts.
To better protect children, California should reform its system of chemical regulation through the Green Chemistry Initiative. This program should:
- Require chemical manufacturers to prove that each chemical they market is safe.
- Empower regulatory agencies to restrict or ban the manufacture and use of chemicals that pose potential dangers, erring on the side of protecting human health and the environment.
- Ensure public access to information on chemicals and their uses through mandatory reporting requirements.
For Parents Seeking to Minimize Children’s Exposure to Formaldehyde:
- Ask about the formaldehyde emissions of furniture and building products before you purchase and install them in your home.
- If such information is unavailable, avoid products with components made of raw medium density fiberboard or other types of composite wood.
- Ensure adequate ventilation within your home. Maintain moderate temperatures and humidity levels.
- Place pollution-absorbing plants – such as spider plants, Boston ferns, dwarf date palms, pot mums, or peace lilies – in your home.
How We Estimated Indoor Air Pollution Levels
Environment California Research & Policy Center hired Berkeley Analytical Associates, LLC to test the formaldehyde emissions of selected baby nursery furnishings. Laboratory staff placed each product in an environmental chamber and measured the amount of formaldehyde vapor that that was released to air. We then extrapolated the results to estimate how much each product would contribute to the formaldehyde air concentrations within a typical home. (For technical details, see the Methodology section on page 26.)