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Consumer Reports Statement on New Study Showing Cars Contain Harmful Flame Retardants Potentially Linked to Cancer, Other Health Risks

CR calls on NHTSA to update its current flammability standard for vehicle interiors

WASHINGTON, DC – A new peer-reviewed study published today found that harmful flame retardants—including those known or suspected to cause cancer—are present in the air inside cars. Manufacturers add flame retardant chemicals to seat foam and other parts of the vehicle’s interior because of outdated federal flammability requirements. 

In light of these findings by researchers at the Green Science Policy Institute and Duke University, Consumer Reports (CR) is calling on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to update its fire safety standard for vehicle interiors, which was adopted in 1971, and consider replacing the current flammability testing with a different type of test that would reduce consumers’ exposure to harmful chemicals. NHTSA could, for example, follow the lead of California, which in 2013 replaced an outdated open-flame test for upholstered furniture with a similarly effective smolder test that could be met without the use of flame retardant chemicals. This revised flammability standard, which has also been adopted at the federal level, has led to lower levels of flame retardants in U.S. homes. 

“It’s long overdue for NHTSA to consider a better flammability standard for the inside of our cars,” said William Wallace, associate director of safety policy for Consumer Reports. “If there’s an alternative that can similarly protect consumers from fires while sparing them the long-term health harms of toxic chemical exposure, then there’s no excuse for delay. These findings should be a wake-up call, and NHTSA should immediately launch an effort to update its flammability standard for vehicles’ interior materials.”

The study published today found that almost all cars—99 percent—contained a flame retardant under investigation by the U.S. National Toxicology Program as a potential carcinogen. Most cars had additional flame retardants present, including two known carcinogens under California Proposition 65. 

A recent research paper estimated that those with the highest levels of one flame retardant used in cars and furniture had about four times the risk of dying from cancer compared with people with the lowest levels. Epidemiological studies have also shown that the average U.S. child has lost three to five IQ points from exposure to this flame retardant. Further, the flame retardants found to be present in most vehicles are also linked to neurological and reproductive harms. 

CR emphasizes that progress to reduce flame retardant exposure can and should be made in the automotive industry, prioritizing consumer safety and well-being. A CR petition launched today calls on NHTSA to update the outdated 1971 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 302, which governs flammability and applies to fabrics, cushions, and other materials inside the vehicle, to help end the use of flame retardant chemicals in vehicles. 

In addition, CR advocates for reducing kids’ exposure to flame retardant chemicals in child car seats, which must also meet FMVSS 302 requirements. While progress is being made, a 2022 study conducted by the Ecology Center’s Healthy Stuff lab found that certain car seats, especially those at lower price points, still contain potentially harmful chemicals. It is vitally important to always use a properly installed child safety seat when transporting a child by car; yet, at the same time, CR is committed to the principle that every child deserves protection from hazardous chemicals, regardless of their family’s financial circumstances or the price of their child seat.

“While we’re urging NHTSA to update its flammability standards, we recognize that changing federal regulations can take a long time. In the near term, we want to work collaboratively on expedited ways to reduce every child’s exposure to flame-retardant chemicals in their car seats—including with child seat manufacturers, public health and safety experts, policymakers and consumers nationwide,” said Wallace.

Media Contact: Emily Akpan, emily.akpan@consumer.org