When my kids were little they thought I was a “meanie mommy” for not letting them wear the kinds of pajamas their friends wore. Instead they slept in cotton long johns – albeit in cute colors.

I wasn’t mean: I was preventing them from wearing jammies with flame retardant. Instinctively, a decade before research revealed that flame retardant materials didn’t protect kids from burns in house fires and that it was carcinogenic, I went organic. My kids have forgiven me, and Tris, the chemical that made kids PJ’s flame retardant, has long been removed from kids’ garments due to well-established biological safety hazards.

But guess what, moms? Similar chemicals are packed into our sofas and tons of baby products — even nursing pillows! The average American baby is born with the highest recorded levels of flame-retardants amongst babies in the world!

According to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof, “A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.”

Flame-retardants are similar to PCBs, chemicals I have written about previously. They are linked to health problems ranging from lower IQ to diabesity. Penta, a chemical that was previously packed into couches and other furniture, turned up in the blood of babies and in breast milk around the world. The European Union banned it after researchers linked it to developmental and neurological problems in children, and manufacturers pulled it from the market.

“Safer” chemicals were supposedly created as alternatives in the US but it turns out that “Firemaster 550” and others were just as dangerous as their older cousins. According to Kristof, Big Chemical and Big Tobacco are in on this one, hand in hand. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors behind the data.

Our kids get the biggest household exposures! One researcher found that a fifth of the nursing pillows, car seats, highchairs, diaper-changing pads and other products made with polyurethane foam contained the “alternative.” And the most common flame retardant detected in baby products? Chlorinated Tris! The very stuff taken out of pajamas wasn’t banned from commerce; it just migrated into other kid products!

Why do our babies and toddlers get such high exposures? Dust containing the chemicals gets onto our floors, and our little ones are exposed through breathing it in and ingestion when they play on the floor.

Let’s be “meanie mommies” and get this stuff out of our environment once and for all!

5 Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Baby or Toddler from Flame Retardant Chemicals:

  1. Wash your baby’s or toddler’s hands regularly and before they eat; Reguarly rinse toys that have been on the floor that will end up in their mouths.
  2. If you have wood floors, damp mop regularly to remove as much chemical dust as possible; if you don’t have wood floors and can afford to, switch to wood flooring.
  3. GO GREEN: Use your purchasing power to demand products free of hazardous chemicals and don’t use baby paraphernalia you don’t need.
  4. If you are just furnishing your home, decorate with wood and consider futons made of organic cotton materials rather than foam for your chairs, sofas, and bedding.
  5. Avoid upholstered furniture and carpet padding made with polyurethane foam.

This excellent illustration appeared online in The Chicago Tribune which has a thorough investigative report on flame retardants in the environment.


  1. Hey Aviva-

    We recently scored a new (ie free used) mattress. Great for a mom and dad who need all the sleep they can get, but it’s a little firm for our comfort. So i started looking for a nice memory foam pad or something of the sort to put on top and then came across all the info about the flame retardants used in mattress and matterss pads. How can i find a way to get a good nights sleep without the poisons and without breaking the bank account? I’m grateful for any ideas-


    • Hi Gretchen
      Super good question. A wool mattress pad (or 2) can add some softness. And if you must go with the foam, put something between you and it and the sheet. A wool mattress pad would work for that, too. Also, consider checking in with your local futon store. Many towns have them. They might know how to source something more natural for you that would give you the softness and the safety! Please let us know what you find out!

  2. I saw a blog post somewhere recently about DIY buckwheat mattress kits. I have been trying to replace the foam furniture in my home and have been having a tough time finding an alternative I can afford. I haven’t made my own mattress yet, but I thought I’d throw that out there.

    • Interesting! Like a roll in the hay except it’s in the buckwheat! 🙂 Please keep us posted on whatcha’ find. We’ve slept on a futon for 30 years. Every now and then I’m somewhere we I sleep on an amazing mattress and think “Oh, I gotta get me one of these.” But I can never bring myself to do it because of the environmental issues. So ours is cotton. Hmm….don’t know for sure that it’s organic though. Likely not given the price…

      • This is the make your own buckwheat mattress kit. http://openyoureyesbedding.com/ I’ve been wanting one for a while now. If I could find a local source for the hulls, I would do it in a heartbeat. As it stands now, my family “co-sleeping compound” is made from two cotton futon mattresses (an organic Queen, and a conventional Full) pushed up against eachother on the floor so that the kids can safely roll out. This works really well for us for now — though my husband and I do look forward to an eventual return to a grown-up bed off the ground with nice bedding. 🙂

  3. So if you let things like an mattress or carseat air out does that help? Same with a nursing pillow? Also do the chemicals reduce after time?

    • Unfortunately, probably not….The chemicals may actually be released over time as the materials in the pillows, etc, breakdown and start to release them…

  4. I recently bought an organic mattress for my little girl from The Clean Bedroom, Organic Naturepedic brand and we’ve been really pleased. Yes – definitely more expensive, but I feel so much better knowing she’s spending 12 hours a night on that instead of the chemical-laden one from before. If you can somehow swing the cost, I highly recommend it.

  5. Do the chemicals come out as the pajama’s are washed? I think my children’s pj’s say to wash on cold but I tend to do warm washes…

      • Can you please advise which baby pajamas contain fire retardants? I called Carters and they reassured me that they do not add any FR to their pajamas? Please advise.

        • I used cotton long johns for my kids — most of the organic cotton companies should be FR-free. You could also check on the Environmental Working Group Website. Best! Aviva

  6. Hey Aviva!
    I had a really bad reaction to our couch recently this is so timely!
    As farmers we never really had an issue with couches since we never really had funds for new furniture. Last spring my sore husband finally got a couch for the whole family.
    I spend my days in Danskos w/ no socks. If a child asks to read I slip them off and get cozy. Not making the connection of how often bare skin touched the fabric. Recently my ankles & calves broke out in a really painful skin condition like nothing I’ve ever seen in 22 years of natural living!
    Time to get rid of the couch and go back to our old school ways!
    We need to make a wood fired hot tub instead

  7. Any thoughts on leather couches? I have been mulling with the idea and I wonder if the leather would serve to contain the foam dust, my husband will never go for a futon, at 6’4 and 300 lbs it has taken 3 years to find a couch that doesn’t feel flimsy to him to replace the iron frame, hard as a rock, so grimy its grey and not cream 50’s one that came with the house.

      • I have the same problem. I wanted to reupholster my old leather couches however the quote I received to make them with the latex foam simply shocked me. It was something about $10.000 for two couches. Do you have any other ideas for the filling/cushions that is healthy/fire retardants free and not expensive? If I go with leather couches with Polyurethane foam will the leather keep the chemicals away from us? When do the fire retardants dust start to migrate out of the couch? thank you.

        • It’s tough! We used futons when the kids were little — and splurged on organic cotton. I don’t think leather would let too much filling out — but I don’t know of any hard data on furniture and amount of chemical leakage….

  8. Love this post. Thanks for sharing. My Husband and I have been shopping around for an organic toxic free crib mattress for our little one due in July. There seem to so many options out there claiming to be organic & toxic free. Any brands you would recommend? The price point seems to varry significantly between brands which has me questioning which ones are truly safe.
    As always – thank you for your insight and for shedding the light on some very important topics. Xx

  9. Hello Aviva,
    You’ve been a hero of mine for a long time!
    Anyways, do you think a “strip” would get rid of the retardant in pajamas? Borax, calgon, and washing soda? Makes me consider my daughter’s car seat, too. Pretty sure they’re flame retardant…
    And referring to foam mattress pad, when you say put something between you and the sheet, do you mean another sheet? Would a cotton mattress pad work?
    Thank you!

  10. Thank you for the great post,
    Does all polyurethane foam have fire retardants?
    And I was wondering about soft baby books if they could also have them…

  11. Hi, any suggestions for what to use as a waterproof fitted sheet under the normal cotton fitted sheet for kids beds? My kids very rarely have an accident, so probably don’t need it, but I would hate for their mattress to get ruined if they did.

    • Hi Kate, I like to use a washable wool sheet or cover as a barrier between the waterproof sheet and the sheet. They are super easy to wash and provide some protection!

      I hope this helps!

      Megan- Aviva Romm’s Executive Assistant and Online Nutrition Expert

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