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Flame retardants may affect fetal brain development

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Flame retardants are chemicals that are present in many beds, furniture, and other items that we use everyday. They are present in our environment, including indoors. These chemicals allow materials like beds to burn more slowly when exposed to flames. Some people are considering avoiding them, as studies have been accumulating to suggest that exposure to flame retardants may lead to health problems.

A recent scientific study by Dr. Julie Herbstman and colleagues adds some new information to our knowledge about these compounds. The study reported that higher exposure of pregnant women to a type of flame retardant was associated with lower test scores of brain function in their infants and toddlers.

What are flame retardants? Several different chemical compounds are used as flame retardants. One type of chemical flame retardant includes the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). That mouthful of a name refers to a group of chemicals that share a certain chemical structure. Flame retardants are used in mattresses, furniture, and other items to retard or slow the burning of mattresses should a fire occur.

What was evaluated in this this study? The study focused on women who were pregnant at the time of the World Trade Center (WTC) disaster on September 11, 2001, and delivered their babies at hospitals near the site.

The scientists followed a group of 320 of these women and their children over a 6 year period. They measured the amounts of 8 different types of PBDEs in umbilical cord blood for 210 of the women. Why measure cord blood? Cord blood is fetal blood and can be used to estimate exposure of the fetus to these chemicals. PBDEs from the mother pass through the placenta to her fetus. The scientists also performed tests of mental and physical development in 152 of the children in the study over a 6 year period.

What did they find? There was a statistical association between the amount or concentration of certain PBDEs in cord blood during pregnancy (PBDE cord levels), and scores on tests of infant and toddler abilities. The higher the PBDE cord levels, the lower the test scores. They used two different tests which are designed to measure physical and mental development beginning at 1 year of age through 6 years of age.

But we were not at the WTC; what does this mean for me? That is a good question. Here in Chicago, we have not had any large-scale exposures to major amounts of dust and debris like the debris in the WTC disaster. But we are likely exposed every day to products in our environment that contain PBDEs. In fact, most of us spend 30% of our day sleeping on pillows, mattresses, and bedding that contain PBDEs.

Furthermore, the authors of this study think that the WTC exposure was not the most important source of PBDE exposure among these study participants. They reported that previoius analysis showed that the amount of PBDEs in their blood was not linked to how close they lived to the disaster site. Therefore, the women may have been exposed to PBDEs during the disaster, but they were also exposed to PBDEs from other sources. This study did not look in detail at what the other sources were.
This study alone does not tell us what level of PBDE exposure we might worry about. But this study links PBDE exposure to effects on brain development during pregnancy.

Are there enough PBDEs in mattresses, pillows, and other household or office items to be a potential problem for me? Another good question, and a complicated one at that. Scientists and federal regulators have been debating this question for several years. PBDE-free bedding options are available. More information will be forthcoming in this series on flame retartdants.

Want to learn more? Upcoming articles here will focus on how we are exposed to PBDEs, Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) tests and rules, and current EPA information regarding their analysis of potential concerns for PBDE exposure and health effects. Subscribe to your Chicago Environmental Health Examiner (click above) to follow this series.

This study was published in the May 2010 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, and you can read the full article for free online if you are interested.

Suggestions, comments, questions? Anything about environmental health that you would like to know about? Email your Chicago Environmental Health Examiner at MarisaNaujokas@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @chicagoenviron.

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