Last year, I was looking to buy my daughter a nap mat for pre-school and was rudely awakened to the fact that many nap mats contain toxic flame retardant chemicals, which studies have repeatedly linked to various health hazards in animals. I couldn’t bear the thought of my daughter’s face laying on this nap mat, breathing in these chemicals on a daily basis. I can’t say I was surprised by this finding–unfortunately, many baby products, clothes, and furniture contain harmful chemicals that can be leached into the air and absorbed into the skin by direct contact. But, many parents probably don’t think of nap mats as a potential hazard for their children. I wanted to share with my readers the science behind the concerns about nap mats (specifically those made of soft foam and plastic materials)…and offer relatively easy solutions to the problem.
First of all, how do we know for sure that nap mats contain flame retardants? In 2013, The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) commissioned a study of 24 nap mats containing polyurethane foam purchased from major retailers like Target and Amazon. These nap mats were sent off to a Duke University lab for analysis. All but two of the nap mats were found to contain flame retardants. These mats contained 10 different flame retardant chemicals (or chemical mixtures) and 19 of the nap mats contain more than one chemical. Only 11 of the nap mats were specifically advertised as flame resistant. The most common flame retardant was triphenyl phosphate (TPP), in 18 nap mats, followed by chlorinated Tris (TDCPP) in nine mats. Eight mats contained a mixture equivalent to Firemaster 550 (which contains TPP), and eight contained the “Tert-butyl mixture.” The Washington Toxics Coalition did its own study of 14 nap mats bought in retailers in that state and found that 12 of the 14 mats contained TDCPP and Firemaster 550.
In sum, most foam nap mats on the market contain flame retardants.
So what’s so bad about these chemicals? Here’s what we know about flame retardant chemicals commonly found in nap maps:
- TPP (triphenyl phosphate): Animal studies have linked TPP exposure to endocrine, metabolic, and reproductive system disruptions, including obesity, early puberty, and thyroid dysfunction (you can find two such studies here and here). The former of these two studies suggests that if TPP and similar chemicals are indeed endocrine disruptive, “this could have broad human health ramifications because they have been used for decades as plasticizers and in many other commercial and industrial applications.” A 2010 study suggests that the exposure to TDCPP or TPP might be associated with reduced sperm concentrations among human adult males. A government document published by the CDC states that TPP “is a neurotoxin in animals. When injected in cats it caused delayed paralysis” (Page 1). By the way, I’ve only mentioned a few studies here; many more have been done on TPP and Firemaster 550, which contacts TPP, and found potential harmful effects. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists other such studies here.
- Firemaster 550 has also been associated with harmful endocrine and reproductive effects. Some critics may argue that these studies expose animals to unusually high doses of toxins, much higher than what humans might experience in daily life. Average people are exposed to flame retardants not only from direct contact with products that contain these toxins, but also via household dust–flame retardants are leached into the air or shed by products and furniture, and they then settle as dust, which we breather in and touch. Well, a 2012 study exposed rats to Firemaster 550 “at human-relevant exposure levels,” i.e. an amount that can realistically be found in household dust. Guess what? After administering Firemaster 550 to dams (pregnant raps), the researchers found thyroid disruption in the dams and pups. It also identified “FM 550 as a potential obesogen and contributor to metabolic syndrome, a collective term for a set of comorbid risk factors (including obesity, elevated fasting glucose, and impaired glucose tolerance) that together increase the risk for coronary artery disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.”
- TDCPP (chlorinated Tris): Recent animal studies have suggested that TDCPP causes neurotoxicity, is an endocrine disruptor and a reproductive toxicant (e.g. see here and here), and is potentially carcinogenic (see here). The WHO and National Research Council have reported TDCPP to be linked to cancer in rats (NRC report here; I could not find the 1998 WHO report on the web). TDCPP is also on California’s Proposition 65 list of substances known to cause cancer, and this report issued by the California Protective Agency lists a bunch of studies that show TDCPP to be carcinogenic and toxic in other ways. Chlorinated Tris was banned from children’s pajamas in the mid-1970s, yet it still widely used in children’s products today.
So, what is a parent to do?
First of all, the dangers I have listed above are connected with nap mats made of foam. If your child’s pre-school has cots for the children to sleep on, you are in luck, as there are no known issues with these. However, other schools provide or require parents to buy foam nap mats, as my daughter’s former and current pre-schools do. The kind of nap mat (usually the thickness) is regulated by state law (e.g. my state requires mats to be at least 1 inch thick). In this situation, here is what parents can do:
Option 1: There is at least one nap mat company that has discontinued the use of flame retardants, and parents can buy from this company or otherwise do their own research to identify a safe option. The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) worked out a deal with a leading manufacturer of nap mats, Peerless Plastics, to discontinue using flame retardants. I called and verified this with the CEO back in August, 2014–he said that any nap mat manufactured as of Jan 1, 2014 will not contain any flame retardants. There is so much turnover of their product that any major retailer carrying their mats will have the flame-retardant-free stock by now. **By the way, I am not in any way affiliated with this company, and they didn’t even know I was writing this article. I am sharing this information because I think it is very useful and I believe that companies that respond to consumers’ concerns should be rewarded with business. I bought my daughter’s mat over a year ago on Amazon.
You can find the Peerless Plastics Kindermat for under $18 (as of this writing) on Amazon (as well as in other major retailers). If you can convince your school to order these mats in bulk from a wholesaler and then sell them to parents at this discounted price, you can save money. This is what I did with my daughter’s old pre-school, which now carries only Peerless Plastics Kindermats and sells them to parents. Her current school has their own stock of nap mats and doesn’t require parents to buy their own–but I checked the label and saw that it was not Peerless Plastics. I asked if I could provide my own nap mat and they have no problem with this. I encourage parents to be their own advocates and work out a mutually beneficial solution with their pre-school.
Option 2: Avoid foam altogether, and if the school permits it, you can opt for other materials that are not usually treated with flame retardants include polyester fiberfill, cotton, and wool.
I love that there is somewhat of a happy ending to this story. The CEH and other organizations are working to get Congress to outlaw the use of flame retardents and other toxins in children’s and other consumer products. In the meantime, parents have the few options I’ve reviewed above.
*If you happen to know of other manufacturers of foam nap mats that have pledged to discontinue the use of flame retardants, please let me know in your comments and I will happily update my post with this information once I’ve verified it. Thank you 🙂