The results are in!
On July 15, 2011, ANSES (the French agency charged with conducting the study) published its final report and recommendations regarding the potential health risks of formamide exposure from EVA foam mats. The 240 page report will make any research lab aficionado proud, but will lose most casual readers, especially since it’s in French. The short answer is that: Yes, formamide was found in these mats. But it’s not as simple as that.
A quick recap…
In December 2010 Belgian authorities pulled from the market popular children’s foam floor mats because they emitted high levels of formamide (a toxic industrial chemical). France followed suit soon thereafter and imposed a temporary ban in order to conduct further lab tests.
and UPDATE: Foam mats banned in Europe, why not here? if you already have not done so.
While there was little to no news coverage outside of Europe, there were a lot of inquiring parents across the blogosphere in North America and elsewhere (my blog posts were particularly popular in the US, Singapore, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). At the same time, there remained a lot of unanswered questions as to source of the formamide, retailer integrity and the types of dangers and precautions to take. Things have been relatively quiet since then. In March, the French authorities extended the ban till mid-July in order to complete its tests.
What is Formamide and why is it in my child’s mats?
Formamide is classified as a reprotoxic substance (reproductive toxicity includes adverse effects on sexual function and fertility in adult males and females, as well as developmental toxicity in the offspring) and is used primarily in the chemical, pharmaceutical, plastics and polymer industries as a solvant, plasticiser or as an additive to foam blowing agents.
The report noted that formamide no longer seems to be in use in France as a plasticiser or additive for EVA foam, but that since it is easy to use and inexpensive, it may still be used overseas (read: China). The report further noted that the exact reason why it is used in the manufacturing process or how it found its way into products was not clear based on their research.
This means that if a retailer or manufacturer claims – as many have – that their mats do not contain formamide, they may be honest, yet wrong; or technically correct, yet dishonest. This is because the formamide can appear in the product as a bi-product of the manufacturing process while not being contained in the recipe of the product itself.
Furthermore, the amounts of formamide measured in mats on the markets in France, Belgium and Denmark ranged from less than 20 mg/kg (traces) to more than 1,300 mg/kg. This means that while the products were essentially similar (foam puzzle mats), the wide range of measurements implies that the presence of formamide did not seem necessary in the manufacturing process itself.
What are the dangers of formamide?
The report noted that here are no studies on the effects of formamide on humans. Lab test on rats have found that formamide initially targets the hematopoietic (organs contributing to the formation of blood components) and reproductive systems. Data from rats exposed throughout their lifetimes suggest a potential carcinogenic effect (tumors), but more research is needed. However, the report noted, it is not possible to exclude the potential carcinogenic effects of prolonged exposure. No adequate studies were identified by the report as to quantifying the critical dose levels of short term exposure (less than 90 days).
Does the formamide in EVA foam mats pose a health risk?
The French researchers tested three different brands of foam puzzle mats. The study found that any exposure to formamide came almost exclusively through inhalation. Exposure through ingestion (whether through suction, chewing, or swalling a piece) was negligible.
The patterns observed were similar across all three products tested:
- strong emission of formamide, decreasing rapidly during the first few days;
- more moderate emission (from 50 to 200 µg/m3) for the first week of use;
- emission in the region of 20 to 30 µg/m3 after the first month of use.
ANSES used these figures as a basis for calculating short- and long-term exposure to formamide. The report noted that, although it is not possible to exclude health risks (hematopoietic disorders) related to exposure to formamide in puzzle mats found on the market in France (and likely elsewhere), especially with regard to infants, the probability of these risks occurring was low (less than 5%). Furthermore, there appeared to be no likelihood of health risk for adults, including pregnant women.
So what does this all mean?
There are a number of takeaways from the report:
- Formamide, it’s bad for you: it’s classified as toxic substance. Following the report, manufacturers and distributors in France will need to provide test results showing that any formamide emission did not exceed 20 mg/m3 (traces) starting from the the 28th day after unpacking. A 2009 EU already mandates that, starting in 2013, any such substance cannot be used or found in toys
- Up to standard does not mean safe: the mats tested actually were “up to standard” in the sense that they contained less than 0.5% of formamide by mass; and the formamide may have come from elsewhere in the manufacturing process
- Exposure comes from breathing in formamide fumes more than anything else
- The fumes are the strongest with new mats and decrease over time
- The health risks are real, though small (less than 5%)
- Young children are at the ones at risk
- Other products made of EVA-type foam may pose similar risks
What do I do if I own foam mats?
If you’ve owned foam mats for an extended period of time (more than one month), the fumes have largely dissipated by now and the mats should no longer pose any health risks.
What should I do I want to buy foam mats?
Obviously, look for a brand of mats that clearly states that it has been tested to be free of any formamide emissions (different from containing formamide!).
Regardless, the report recommends that consumers should unpack the new mats and keep them for several days in a room not frequently used by any children under the age of three to avoid any potential exposure to formamide when the emission levels are still high. Of course, if you remain concerned, you are free not to buy these products.
An informed consumer is a better consumer
This papa is pleased that a government agency (finally) acted on consumer concerns, commissioned a scientific study of the issue and had the results released publicly. The study showed that the risks, while small, were real.
What is more important, however, is that consumers are now better informed and can make their own decisions regarding the issue at hand.
Spread the word!
Share, +1 or re-tweet this post!