When looking for a child care center, parents usually ask about the number of children and the number of adult caretakers in the center, what educational activities are offered, and what’s for lunch.

But new research from Toxic-Free Future, a nonprofit research organization, shows that parents should also ask about chemicals in the nap mats on which their children will sleep and play.

Until 2013, children’s nap mats – the easily cleanable and portable foam mats used in child care centers for nap time – were made with foam loaded with chemical flame retardants. Despite their name, independent research found these chemicals do very little, if anything, to protect against fire risks. Meanwhile, breathing in or swallowing dust with flame retardants chemicals has been linked to weight gain, trouble learning and, in the long term, elevated cancer risk.

To comply with a California state law, which has since been updated, manufacturers added chemical flame retardants to all foam furniture products, like sofas and mattresses. The old law called for burn testing that was not useful in real-life scenarios, but remained in place for decades based on the claim these chemicals would improve fire safety.

Manufacturers across the country often follow California’s lead, so when the law was revised, they started developing foam products without chemical flame retardants and met fire safety standards with alternative methods. Despite this shift, flame retardant chemicals are still in use and nap mats filled with the chemicals remain in child care centers across the U.S.

With friction and ordinary wear and tear, flame retardants chemicals migrate out of foam and into indoor dust and air. Children can absorb these chemical flame retardants through their skin while lying on foam mats during naptime, or they can inhale or ingest the chemicals through air or dust.

As scientists from Toxic-Free Future and Indiana University found, when day cares replace nap mats that contain flame retardants with chemical-free versions, the levels of flame retardants in children’s bodies decrease by 40 to 90 percent. The simple exchange of nap mats can drastically cut young children’s exposures to harmful flame retardants.

But don’t stop with nap mats! As EWG reported, flame retardants might lurk in many different products. The best bet to protect your child from flame retardants is to reduce the number of treated products in your home and in the child care centers you use.

To protect your child from exposure to flame retardant chemicals, EWG recommends you:

  • Encourage your child care provider to buy nap mats and furniture without chemical flame retardants. Fabric cots are a good alternative if flame retardant-free nap mats are not available. If your child participates in gymnastics, ask the gym about the foam in its tumbling pits.
  • Ask teachers and child care providers to have your child wash their hands frequently – using soap and water, not hand sanitizer – to prevent ingestion of flame retardants and other contaminants that build up in dust. This is especially important before meals, and for babies and young children who put their fingers in their mouths.
  • Always choose flame retardant-free products, including mattresses, for your home. Swap out foam from older furniture for products made with flame retardant-free foam.
  • Look for pajamas made of 100 percent cotton that are snug fitting. Children’s pajamas that are snug fitting do not require flame retardants and are labeled as such.
  • Check labels – foam furniture and mats made without chemical flame retardants will say so on the label.
  • Vacuum and dust with a wet rag frequently to prevent flame retardants and other harmful chemicals from building up in your home.