A parent's protective instinct is a force of (human) nature. It often kicks in well before a baby's arrival (for me, it was when I first heard a heartbeat) and it doesn't dissipate even when that "baby" is middle-aged, I'm told. Parents will go to any length to keep their children safe from clear and present danger, but unfortunately some hazards are present without being at all clear.
Falling into this group are lead and other invisible contaminants that can be harmful for developing brains and bodies. More research is now showing that widely used flame retardants also belong in this group, with the latest study finding that their harmful effects may start in the womb.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are flame-retarding chemicals used in many everyday products, such as mattresses, furniture, computers, televisions, and other electronics. PBDEs are not chemically bound to these products, which means they can be released into the environment. And released they often are, as PBDEs can be found in our air, water, food, household dust—and bodies. Blood samples show that nearly all Americans harbor varying amounts of these chemicals, and children appear to absorb higher levels than adults.
This has raised serious concern about how these chemicals might affect our health. Studies in animals have found that PBDEs can hamper thyroid function, brain development, fertility, and liver function, and may cause cancer. More research is now being done in humans, and the results aren't reassuring—particularly when it comes to children.
In the latest study, researchers tested blood samples from the umbilical cords of 210 newborns. They then followed up with these children at ages 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6. The children with the highest levels of PBDEs in their cord blood scored lower on tests of mental and physical development at all five ages studied. The link was particularly strong at age 4, when verbal and full IQ scores were 5.5 to 8 points lower for those who had the highest PBDE exposure. Overall, the reductions in IQ scores were similar to those associated with low-level lead exposure, say the researchers.
This study was well designed and its findings should be fairly reliable, as the researchers took into account several other factors that might have affected the children's development, such as their mothers' age while pregnant and whether the children were born prematurely. However, the study didn't measure the children's PBDE exposure after their birth. It's possible that those exposed to higher levels in the womb continued to be exposed to higher levels. So children might have had poorer scores on these tests because of their contact with these chemicals after birth, rather than before. We need more research to explore this question as well as the possible effects of PBDEs in the womb.
What you need to know. This study provides more evidence about the probable harms of PBDE-based flame retardants. The good news is that some governments and manufacturers are taking note. Three large chemical companies recently agreed to phase out a common form of PBDEs called decabromodiphenyl ether (deca, for short). And deca has already been banned in some states. Several electronics manufacturers have also committed to phasing out PBDE flame retardants in their products, including Apple, LG Electronics, Sony-Ericsson, and Toshiba.
Unfortunately, these chemicals are already pervasive in our environment (not to mention our bodies). But you can take steps to lower your family's exposure. Here are some tips from the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization:
- Inspect foam items and replace those that have ripped covers or foam that is breaking down
- Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. This can trap small particles and help remove contaminants from your home
- Keep children from touching or mouthing products that may contain PBDEs, such as cells phones and remotes, and always wash hands before eating
- Do your research before you buy new products. Check with manufacturers about what flame retardants they use. And, when possible, consider buying products made of naturally flame-resistant materials, such as wool, leather, and cotton.
—Sophie Ramsey, patient editor, BMJ Group
ConsumerReportsHealth.org has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.