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To Avoid Flame Retardants, Avoid Polyurethane Foam

To Avoid Flame Retardants, Avoid Polyurethane Foam

January 22, 2023

By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

All of this talk about flame retardants in the news has parents scrambling to find ways to avoid them to protect their children. It’s easier said than done, as they are very rarely labeled on any product.

One way around this lack of labeling is to buy items that don’t contain polyurethane foam, which some fire experts have referred to as “solid gasoline.” “If you’re going to have poly foam, you’re going to have flame retardants. You can’t use such incredibly flammable material and not protect it,” says Barry A. Cik, co-founder of the organic mattress company Naturepedic. Poly foam, the most common filling on the market, is found in mattresses, upholstered furniture, car seats, stuffed animals, pillows and more. 

Before this inexpensive but flammable foam entered and took over the market in the 1960s, cotton was the most common filler and flame retardants weren’t in everything. “Flammability wasn’t an issue. Cotton doesn’t really burn,” explains Cik. “It will smolder. If you don’t douse it with water and you let it go and go, it will burn. But it wont really burn in a serious quick way like polyurethane, which just goes up into a huge fire instantly.” At first polyurethane foam didn’t even contain flame retardants. But case after case of it accidentally catching fire (usually from cigarettes) and subsequent deaths resulted flame retardant requirements. 

To avoid poly foam and protect their children from flame retardants, parents have several options.. The first is to not buy unnecessary squishy products. All of your kids’ foam stuffed animals, for example, aren’t technically necessary. While certain items containing polyurethane foam—like car seats—are truly necessary, when it comes to items like mattresses and play mats, families can choose versions made with safer materials including cotton, wool, and even natural latex (though this can be an allergen). Shoppers should be wary of foams marketed as green or bio. These may technically be regular synthetic foam with flame retardants plus a small percentage of soy bean or castor oil.

Consumers should rely on trustworthy third party certifications to guide them like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and GOLS (Global Organic Latex Standard), a new natural latex standard. Keep in mind what any given standard actually covers; some organic certifications cover fabric only, not the entire product. The Washington Toxics Coalition also offers helpful mattress shopping tips. “Keep it simple,” says Cik. “For right now this is as good as it gets. It’s not perfect, but there’s no such thing as perfect.”