University of California Berkley researchers say that children have a greater risk of experiencing neurodevelopmental delays in early childhood if exposed to flame retardant compounds—even while in the womb. Unfortunately, flame retardants may be more widespread than you think.
Researchers collected samples from about 300 pregnant women once while pregnant and again when their children were aged 5 and 7. The blood of over 97% of all mothers and children had unsettling levels of the compounds in question, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). California residents have among the world’s highest levels of PBDEs in their bodies due to a fire-safety law enacted in 1975. Today, PBDEs are suspected of contributing to poor attention, motor skills, and lowered IQ.
Researchers from the UC San Francisco found similar results. They tested 25 second-trimester pregnant women in 2008 and 2009 and found they had high levels of the chemicals in their blood, putting their babies at risk.
Though banned in 2004, the chemicals continue to show up in residents’ blood samples. This is likely because furniture made before 2004 are still widely in use, releasing PBDEs that then stick to dust, toys, and other household items children touch and breathe Lead author Brenda Eskenazi says even small amounts of PBDEs can be harmful. “They have very long lives in our bodies and environments, so they’re going to build up.”
Greater Exposure to Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers Linked to Lower Test Scores
Researchers also evaluated the children for attention spans, motor skills, and IQ levels. They found that mothers who had greater exposure to PBDEs while pregnant generally had children who scored lower on several tests. The IQs of children with greater exposure in the womb, for instance, scored on average 6 points lower than their peers with less exposure.
Similar results were seen in motor skills tests, although cognitive impairment is still being investigated. Animal studies show, however, that PBDEs and other endocrine disruptors affect neurotransmitters that deal with communication between brain cells.
Of the report, the American Chemistry Council says it “does not appear to show clear evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between exposures and the observed behaviors.”
Admittedly, fires are a major safety concern, but to dismiss these studies so easily seems careless and, perhaps in the case of that particular industry group, fiscally motivated.
Avoiding Chemical Exposure
In the meantime, it’s crucial for parents to seal tears in furniture; mop, sweep, and vacuum often with appropriate ventilation and protection; and encourage children and adults alike to wash hands with soap and warm water after suspected exposure Beyond that, Judy Levin of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland says there’s not much else to be done.
“These are chemicals that are going to be in our furniture and homes for probably two to three more decades.”
Furniture is not the only place you’ll find flame retardants, unfortunately. One chemical known as brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is banned in Europe and Japan but continues to be added to about 10 percent of North American sodas, sometimes resulting in skin lesions, memory loss, and nerve disorders. Other common food items like peanut butter, turkey, ham, fish, and beef products also have shown disturbingly high levels of the flame retardant hexabomocyclododecane (HBCD), largely due to heavy-duty processing and production.