November 26, 2012

The Bad News on Flame Retardants

A common flame retardant in household items could delay brain development in kids. Ways to reduce exposure.

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about in the way of chemical exposure, a new study highlights the dangers of a commonly used variety of flame retardant: PBDEs or polybrominated diphenyl ethers. What’s especially disturbing about PBDEs is that they have been shown to delay brain development, one of the most important aspects of child development.

PBDEs are found in household items like carpets, furniture upholstery, electronics casings, and even in strollers and car upholstery. The compounds can leach out of these products over time leaving molecules that can be inhaled. In our bodies, PDBEs appear to be stored in fat cells, and up to 97% of people in the U.S. have the chemical in their bodies. People in California, where the study was conducted, have levels that are about twice the national average.

...[O]ld couches with foam that is disintegrating will still release PBDEs. These chemicals will be in our homes for many years to come, so it's important to take steps to reduce exposure.

Researchers looked at blood samples from 279 women while they were pregnant or at the time they gave birth. Later, their children were given IQ tests at ages five and then seven. Verbal skills, perceptual reasoning, processing speed, and short term memory were all measured. The children were also given tests to assess fine motor skills and attention. Mothers and teachers also rated the kids’ behavior and attention.

The researchers discovered a connection between prenatal and childhood exposure to PBDE and lower scores on tests of attention, fine motor skills, and IQ.

The three versions of PBDE - pentaBDE, octaBDE and decaBDE – have had quite a history in the last few decades. The use of flame retardants increased in the 1970s as people became more concerned about the fire safety of furniture. But over the years, there has been increasing evidence that the chemicals are linked to such problems as decreased fertility in women and low birth weight in babies. PBDEs are "endocrine disruptors,” which means that they affect the way our hormone systems operate.

For these reasons, some states have banned the use of penta- and octaBDE, though items made before 2004 may still contain them. According to the study, three of the big manufacturers have pledged to stop producing the third type, decaBDE, by the year 2013.

"Even though pentaPBDEs are not being used anymore,” said study author Brenda Eskenazi in a press release, “old couches with foam that is disintegrating will still release PBDEs. These chemicals will be in our homes for many years to come, so it's important to take steps to reduce exposure."

Eskenazi is director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health (CERCH) at UC Berkeley, which suggests ways to decrease your and your children’s exposure to the chemicals. Sealing up holes in upholstery, cleaning floors with a damp mop, and washing hands regularly are two ways to cut down exposure. For more information about PBDEs, visit the CERCH website.

The study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
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