Children may enjoy plopping down in foam-filled chairs just their size, but a report released Wednesday by several advocacy groups says those chairs may contain flame retardants that could be harmful.

The chemicals were detected in children’s furniture sold by major retailers in California and across the nation and have toxic or unknown health effects, the report said.

The finding comes just two months before changes to California’s decades-old flammability law will allow manufacturers of furniture and children’s products to stop using these chemicals, and the report’s authors said they hoped they would follow suit.

“We’re optimistic that retailers and manufacturers have heard loud and clear we don’t want (the chemicals) in products and they’ll do what they can do to remove them as soon as possible,” said Judy Levin, a pollution prevention co-director at the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, one of several groups that commissioned the report.

Duke University scientist who conducted the testing for the report found flame retardants in all but four of the 42 children’s furniture products submitted for examination, all of which contained polyurethane foam, the report’s authors said.

Reason to be cautious

The products, many decorated with cartoon characters such as Elmo, Minnie Mouse and Spider-Man, are sold in Target, Babies R Us, Walmart and other stores in California as well as Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Washington and Vermont.

Scientists don’t yet know the chemicals’ full range of health effects, but consumers have reason to be cautious, Levin said. The compound found in more than half of the products tested, for example, is a mix of chemicals known collectively as Firemaster 550. In lab tests involving animals, the compound has been linked to obesity and hormone disruption.

“We’re … exposed to chemicals that have not made it on anyone’s blacklist” but may still be harmful to humans, Levin said.

Another chemical, known as TCPP, was found in 15 furniture items. The chemical has caused genetic damage in studies of human cells. Another was chlorinated Tris, which California recognizes as a carcinogen. It was found in two items.

Finally, there was one case of butylated triphenyl phosphate, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has raised concerns about because of its potential links to decreased fertility and abnormal menstrual cycles.

Chemicals absorbed in body

These chemicals are not bound to their products, so they drift into house dust and air, and are absorbed by people, Levin said. Young children are especially vulnerable because they tend to put their hands in their mouths without washing them first.

Covering products containing the chemicals does little good, Levin said.

“Whether the couch is covered with a blanket or an extra towel, the chemicals do continuously migrate out of the product,” she said.

Bryan Goodman, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, an industry group that represents manufacturers of flame retardants, said it should come as no surprise to anyone that flame retardants would be detected in products listed in this report.

“They are used by product manufacturers to add a layer of fire protection and help products meet important fire safety standards,” he said in a statement.

Katie Reczek, a spokeswoman for Toys R Us, Babies R Us’ parent company, said customer safety is a top priority for the company.

“We require that products sold in our stores meet or exceed federal and state requirements,” she said. When the new standards go into effect in California, she added, “we will require that manufacturers meet the defined requirements.”

Target and Walmart did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Flame retardants have been included in foam-filled furniture and children’s products made for sale in California for decades. Manufacturers began using them to make sure they comply with the state’s strict flammability law, even though the law doesn’t require flame retardants to be added.

Under changes to that law that will take effect in January, manufacturers will be able to refrain from using flame retardants, which are often expensive. Parents who are worried about what’s in the products they are looking to buy for their children should feel free to inquire about a product’s contents with its manufacturer, Levin said.

Another option is to steer clear of polyurethane foam altogether and look for furniture made of wood, cotton, wool, polyester fiberfill and canvas, according to the Center for Environmental Health.