Most parents are forced to guess if toys, furniture and other household products are exposing their kids to toxic chemicals.
Heather Stapleton can figure it out in her laboratory.
Stapleton, an environmental chemist at Duke University, is one of the nation's leading experts on flame retardants. Her research shows that it is extremely difficult to avoid the chemicals, which she has found not only in furniture cushions, but also in such unlikely fire hazards as breast-feeding pillows and diaper-changing pads.
"We detect these chemicals in almost every home, particularly in dust," Stapleton said. "When people ask me how to prevent their kids from being exposed, I find it a difficult question to answer."
In her own home, Stapleton switched the living room from carpet to hardwood flooring in an attempt to keep dust from accumulating.
She also bought mattresses made with organic materials for her 3-year-old son and year-old daughter to nap on at their day care center. Her tests showed the center's regular foam mattresses were treated with one of the flame retardant chemicals she studies.
Not everyone can afford those dramatic steps. Nor is it easy to figure out the specific chemical ingredients in products.
Furniture made with flame retardants often features a label that indicates it meets flammability standards in California's Technical Bulletin 117. Many manufacturers apply the standards to products sold nationwide, and Stapleton cautions that she has found flame retardants even in furniture that didn't have such a label.
To reduce exposure to contaminated dust, Stapleton advises frequent hand-washing, noting that children typically are exposed to higher levels of flame retardants than adults because they spend so much time playing on the floor.
"Kids are always picking up toys and putting them in their mouths," she said. "You can't avoid it."
She also advises caution with clothing dryer lint, which she said can be concentrated not only with flame retardants, but also with other toxic chemicals that escape from household products.
"I definitely recommend that everyone washes their hands after touching dryer lint," Stapleton said.