Study: 80% of Baby Products are Toxic


Janne Karaste. Wikimedia Commons

 “Study: 80% of Baby Products are Toxic”

Fox News used this alarming headline last week in reporting on a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Toxicology.  The study itself had the rather more sober title of “Identification of Flame Retardants in Polyurethane Foam Collected from Baby Products.” 

The issue seems to be risk: should I take a chance on my baby suffering the effects of exposure to flame retardant, or should I tuck her in on a bed that will burn hot and fast in a fire? 

A few days later Nature, in its “News: Explainer” section, published an article titled “A burning issue: Should flame-retardant chemicals be banned?” (For more on flame retardants and the legislation surrounding them, listen to our podcast: Essential Elements - Fire.)

Nature begins with: “Mothers reading one of the several hundred news stories this week that covered a study of flame retardants in US baby products could be forgiven for panicking. ‘Study: 80 Percent of Baby Products Are Toxic’ screamed Fox News.” The article then discusses the actual risk involved and shows that the perception of risk is as important as actual risk. 

In 2003, CHF hosted a conference on risk and safety. Some of the talks focused on the perceptions of risk that arise when new medical technologies come to market. The keynote was given by Darrell Salk, son of the Jonas Salk who developed a polio vaccine in the 1950s and so stopped the epidemic that had raged across America and Europe from the 1920s (over 50,000 cases were reported in 1952 alone). By 1961, fewer than 200 new cases were reported. By the 1970s the disease was all but eradicated. 

Two-hundred children contracted polio from a bad vaccine batch during the early rush to immunize as many children as possible. This did not stop vaccination, because at the time the perceived risks of the disease were enormous.  But in the 1990s, when polio was little more than a bad memory in America, an oral polio vaccine was pulled from the market because of a tiny risk of infection—less than one in millions of vaccinations.

To return to the beginning of this post: is the risk of fire greater than the risk of flame retardants?  The Nature article ends with a resounding maybe:

“The effectiveness of flame retardants on saving lives is hard to tease out, as their use overlaps with other initiatives such as smoke alarms and also with a decline in smoking — a major cause of household fires. Another question is whether such flame retardants need to be in baby products.  ‘How many babies smoke?’ asks [study author Thomas] Webster.”

The perception of risk versus the risk itself makes for some of the best stories we chronicle here at CHF.  For an excellent collection in one volume, I recommend The Risks of Medical Innovation: Risk perception and assessment in historical context. The chapters on thalidomide and anesthesia a chilling. Try to find it in a library (the price is $188).

Posted In: Policy

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