PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are organobromine compounds which are found in household items such as carpets, electronics and plastics. PBDEs can leach out into the environment and accumulate in human fat cells.
"Studies suggest that PBDEs can be found in the blood of up to 97 percent of U.S. residents, and at levels 20 times higher than those of people in Europe. Because of California's flammability laws, residents in this state have some of the highest exposures to PBDEs in the world."
According to the researchers, this is the first study to include a large enough sample size to be able to evaluate just what kind of health impact PBDE flame retardants might have on pregnant women's thyroid function.
Their findings are unsettling to say the least.
PBDEs Harm Thyroid Function and Pose Hazard to Unborn Children
PBDE chemicals (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are a class of organobromine compounds. In this analysis, the researchers focused on five of the PBDE chemicals most frequently detected in pregnant women. These chemicals are components of a mixture called 'pentaBDE.'
PentaBDE, as well as octaBDE, have been banned for use in the European Union and in eight U.S. states, including California, but can still be found in products made before 2004.
The study revealed that "a 10-fold increase in each of the PBDE chemicals was associated with decreases in TSH ranging from 10.9 percent to 18.7 percent," the press release states.
"When the five PBDEs were analyzed together, a tenfold increase was linked to a 16.8 percent decrease in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).
The study did not find a statistically significant effect of PBDE concentrations on levels of T4.
With one exception, all the women in the study with low TSH levels had normal free T4 levels, which corresponds to the definition of subclinical hyperthyroidism."
The combination of having low TSH and normal T4 levels is typically a sign that you're developing hyperthyroidism, which can have significant ramifications, both for you, and your unborn child if you're pregnant.
As described in the press release, hyperthyroidism during pregnancy has been linked to:
- Altered fetal neurodevelopment -- In one animal study, PBDE chemicals caused hyperactivity in the offspring when administered during brain development, and also permanently impaired spermatogenesis in males by reducing sperm and spermatid counts
- Increased risk of miscarriage
- Premature birth
- Intrauterine growth retardation
- Decreased motor skills
Although the mechanics of how PBDEs affect your thyroid are still unclear, it is believed that PBDE chemicals mimic your thyroid hormones.
Another study published in May this year found an inverse link between exposure to fire retardant chemicals and the time it takes for exposed women to become pregnant.
Higher exposures were associated with decreased fertility.
Common Routes of Exposure
PBDEs are found in a myriad of common household items, including:
- Fire retardant textiles
- Polyurethane foam furnishings
- Plastic products
- Motor vehicles
Many hard styrene plastics and foam padding materials are 5 to 30 percent PBDE by weight.
The U.S. implemented fire safety standards in the 1970s that over time has led to more and more products adopting the use of PBDEs to meet the stringent regulations. For example, as of July 1, 2007, all U.S. mattresses are required to be so flame retardant that they won't catch on fire even if they're exposed to the equivalent of a blow torch!
Unfortunately, we now know that many of these fire retardant chemicals accumulate in your fat cells because your body cannot get rid of them naturally. They're also a significant source of environmental pollution.
As much as 97 percent of all Americans now have significant levels of PBDEs in their blood. In fact, most Americans have levels that are 10 to 20 times higher than those found in Europeans! California residents have some of the highest levels of all, due to the State's strict fire safety standards.
PBDEs are also showing up in breast milk, and in various foods, including wild fish, and in the sewage sludge being applied as fertilizer on food crops across the US.
This is yet another case where lack of foresight and safety testing is turning out to have very significant, "unanticipated" human health risks…
How to Avoid PBDEs
Unfortunately, avoiding PBDEs is not as simple as checking labels, as manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use to make their products comply with safety regulations.
The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) guide to PBDEs recommends being particularly mindful of polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses and pillows.
Inspect these items carefully, and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down. Also avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure.
Older carpet padding is another major source of flame retardant PBDEs, so take precautions when removing old carpet. You'll want to isolate your work area from the rest of your house to avoid spreading it around, and use a HEPA filter vacuum to clean up.
When buying new products, such as furniture, mattresses, carpet padding, as well as other plastic products like cell phones, computers and TVs, ask what type of fire retardant it contains. Although you likely won't find PBDEs in newer foam products, there are a number of other fire retardant chemicals that can be just as detrimental to your health, including antimony, formaldehyde, boric acid, and other brominated chemicals.
You can also improve your surroundings by selecting naturally less flammable materials such as leather, wool and cotton.
Shopping for a Safe Mattress
As stated earlier, fire retardant chemicals are used in a number of household items, but considering the fact that you spend anywhere from six to eight hours sleeping on your mattress, making sure you're not being poisoned by fire retardant chemicals while doing so is perhaps one of your greatest concerns.
Finding a safe mattress is no easy task, mainly because mattress manufacturers are not required to label or disclose which chemicals their mattresses contain. Further many state that their mattresses are free of toxic material, when in reality they are not. The way to know for sure is to call the manufacturer directly.
One way to find a safe mattress is to have a doctor or chiropractor write you a prescription, and then find a manufacturer to make one for you. You can also search for 100 percent wool, toxin-free mattresses.
If you already have a mattress at home, putting it into a waterproof mattress cover may help to reduce your exposure to toxins.
Another viable option is to look for a mattress that uses a Kevlar, bullet-proof type of material in lieu of chemicals for fire-proofing. Stearns and Foster uses this process for their mattresses, which is sufficient to pass fire safety standards.
If cost is a concern, you could even make your own mattress by sewing together 100 percent organic cotton or flannel blankets. Add a cloth cover and you'll have a mattress that's relatively inexpensive.