Link Between Flame Retardants and Neurodevelopmental Delays in Children

Story at-a-glance -

  • In the largest study to date of its kind, researchers found in utero and childhood exposures to flame-retardant chemicals (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) were associated with neurodevelopmental delays in school-age children
  • As many as 97 percent of all Americans have significant levels of PBDEs in their blood, which makes in utero exposure highly likely; up to 80 percent of children’s products, including 60 percent of car seats, also contain PBDEs and other chemicals.
  • PBDEs easily leach from consumer products and are released into the environment during manufacturing, where they persist and accumulate in your body.
  • PBDEs have also been linked to decreased fertility, thyroid problems and liver toxicity.
  • Your mattress is likely to be one of your most significant exposures to PBDEs, as all U.S. mattresses are required to be highly flame retardant; look for a toxin-free, organic or 100% wool mattress for yourself and your child instead.

By Dr. Mercola

The U.S. implemented fire safety standards in the 1970s that over time have led to more and more products adopting the use of toxic flame-retardant chemicals (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) to meet the stringent regulations.

PBDEs, which are similar in chemical structure to the now-banned PCBs, are now widely added to furniture foam, plastics for TV cabinets, electronics, wire insulation, and back-coatings for draperies and upholstery, and plastics for personal computers and small appliances.

As flame retardants, the chemicals help to slow ignition and rate of flame growth in the event of a fire, giving you more time to escape.

But since these toxins are not chemically bound to the plastics, foam, fabrics and other materials to which they're added, they easily leach out into your home, and are also contaminating air, soil and waterways during their manufacture, use and degradation in landfills.

As a result, this "public-safety measure" has backfired, and now people, including children, are being exposed to high levels of these toxic chemicals in their everyday lives, and suffering serious health consequences as a result.

Kids' Exposure to Flame Retardants Linked to Neurodevelopmental Delays

PBDEs disrupt mechanisms that are responsible for releasing hormones in your body, as well as alter calcium signaling in your brain, which can adversely affect learning and memory.  A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley revealed that both in utero and childhood PBDE exposures were associated with poorer attention, fine motor coordination, and cognition in school-age children.1

"This study, the largest to date, contributes to growing evidence suggesting that PBDEs have adverse impacts on child neurobehavioral development," the researchers concluded.

The findings are particularly concerning because as many as 97 percent of all Americans have significant levels of PBDEs in their blood, which makes in utero exposure highly likely.

And, even though children are among those most at risk from PBDEs' ability to disrupt and harm development, products intended for kids and babies are also those most likely to be doused in flame-retardant chemicals. For instance, such chemicals were recently detected in 60 percent of 2011 car seats tested by The Ecology Center,2 most likely in the polyurethane foam. A separate study in Environmental Science & Technology3 also detected flame-retardant chemicals in 80 percent of the following children's products tested:

Nursing pillows Baby carriers Car seats
Changing table pads High chairs Strollers
Bassinets Portable cribs Walkers
Baby tub inserts and bath slings Glider rockers Sleeping wedges

PBDEs Linked to Decreased Fertility, Thyroid Problems and More

PBDEs resemble the molecular structure of PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development. Like PCBs, even though certain PBDEs have been banned in some U.S. states and the European Union, they persist in the environment and accumulate in your body.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):4

" … there is growing evidence that PBDE chemicals bioaccumulate and are persistent in the environment, and that people are being exposed to them. For example, traces of the chemicals have been found in fish, in samples of human blood and in women's breast milk. Also, there is evidence that these chemicals may cause liver toxicity, thyroid toxicity, and neurodevelopmental toxicity."

Higher exposures to PBDEs have been linked to decreased fertility,5 which could be in part because the chemicals may mimic your thyroid hormones. Previous research has suggested PBDEs can lead to decreases in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).6 When present with normal T4 levels, low TSH 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 for cancer, one type of PBDE (decaBDE) is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. EPA, while the others remain largely untested. As the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry reported:7

"We don't know if PBDEs can cause cancer in people, although liver tumors developed in rats and mice that ate extremely large amounts of decaBDE throughout their lifetime. On the basis of evidence for cancer in animals, decaBDE is classified as a possible human carcinogen by EPA. Lower brominated PBDEs have not yet been tested for cancer. Neither the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) nor the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have classified the carcinogenicity of any PBDEs."

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Star Witness for Industry Made Up Stories About Babies Dying in Fires

It's hard to imagine what could tug at the heartstrings of legislators more than a tragic story of a 7-week-old baby who was burned in a fire and died as a result, three weeks later, after suffering immensely. The fire was said to have been started by a candle that ignited a pillow that lacked flame retardant chemicals, where the baby lay.

This was the story given by Dr. David Heimback, a burn expert and star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants, in front of California law makers, who were deciding on a bill that could have reduced the use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture.  The problem, as we detailed in a previous article, was that the entire story was a fabrication, from beginning to end. It turns out other tiny patients the doctor had described in testimony supporting toxic flame retardant materials didn't exist either.

According to the Chicago Tribune:8

"... [Dr. David] Heimbach's passionate testimony about the baby's death made the long-term health concerns about flame retardants voiced by doctors, environmentalists and even firefighters sound abstract and petty. But there was a problem with his testimony: It wasn't true.

Records show there was no dangerous pillow or candle fire. The baby he described didn't exist. Neither did the 9-week-old patient who Heimbach told California legislators died in a candle fire in 2009. Nor did the 6-week-old patient who he told Alaska lawmakers was fatally burned in her crib in 2010.

Heimbach is not just a prominent burn doctor. He is a star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants. His testimony, the Tribune found, is part of a decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.

The tactics started with Big Tobacco, which wanted to shift focus away from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths, and continued as chemical companies worked to preserve a lucrative market for their products, according to a Tribune review of thousands of government, scientific and internal industry documents.

These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals, created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the public's fear of fire and helped organize and steer an association of top fire officials that spent more than a decade campaigning for their cause..."

Clearly, when it comes to making money many industries throw ethics and integrity out the window. The doctor even defended his use of bold-faced lies to influence legislators, stating he was not under oath.

Why Your Mattress Could be the Most Dangerous Piece of Furniture in Your Home

The average U.S. home contains multiple sources of PBDEs, as they're widely used in

  • Carpets
  • Textiles
  • Polyurethane foam furnishings
  • Electronics and plastics
  • Motor vehicles

They outgas into your home regularly and are commonly found in household dust, where they can be inhaled. Again, since they are persistent environmental pollutants, PBDEs are also found in various foods, including wild and farm-raised fish and the most "pure" food of all, breast milk.

One of the most important, and often overlooked, sources of PBDEs to address, however, is your mattress. As of July 1, 2007, all U.S. mattresses are required to be highly flame retardant, to the extent that they won't catch on fire if exposed to a blowtorch. This means that the manufacturers are dousing them with highly toxic flame-retardant chemicals like PBDEs, which do NOT have to be disclosed in any way. Dr. Doris J. Rapp, MD, board-certified as both an environmental medical specialist and pediatric allergist, explained:

"They have maybe a cup and a half or two cups of this material on the mattress. They sprinkle it over the top or they put it into some kind of a coating on the mattress. And this can make people very, very ill."

Think about it.

You spend from six to nine hours every night with your face in close proximity to your mattress, breathing in these chemicals. Your children spend even longer sleeping, with their faces even closer to the mattress surface. And if your children jump on the bed, or you bounce on your mattress, even more of these toxins can be released into the air. For this reason, look for a safe, organic, or 100% wool mattress for your child. Another viable option is to look for a mattress that uses Kevlar, a bullet-proof type of material, in lieu of chemicals for fire-proofing.

Your Sofa Probably Contains Toxic Flame Retardants Too

New research published in Environmental Science & Technology revealed that 85 percent of couch foam samples tested contained chemical flame retardants.9 The samples came from more than 100 couches purchased from 1985 to 2010.

More than 40 percent of the couches (and more than half of those purchased since 2005) contained a flame-retardant chemical known as chlorinated tris (TDCPP). This chemical was removed from children's pajamas in the 1970s amid concerns that it may cause cancer. Now, a ubiquitous addition to couch cushions across the U.S., it can easily migrate from the foam and into household dust, which children often pick up on their hands and transfer into their mouths.

Another 17 percent of the couches tested contained the chemical pentaBDE, which is so toxic it's been banned across the globe. And the chemicals do not exist in small quantities either. Researchers noted that flame retardants may make up 11 percent of the foam's weight, and many couches contain one pound or more.10

Why are there so many chemicals in your couch? It's largely due to California Technical Bulletin 117, which requires furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small flame without igniting. Because of California's economic importance, the requirement has essentially become a national standard, with manufacturers dousing their furniture with the chemicals whether they're going to be sold in California or elsewhere in the States.

It's Important to Keep Your Home as Dust-Free as Possible …

House dust is obviously unavoidable, but there's good reason to vacuum or use a wet mop on hard surfaces often – even if you're not particularly a neat freak. Far from being an innocuous substance, household dust is more akin to a chemical cocktail that you inhale and ingest on a daily basis.

Researchers from the Silent Spring Institute tested household dust for 49 flame retardant chemicals. Forty-four were found in all, and half of the samples contained 36 of them, sometimes at potentially harmful levels. 11 Chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants, which are listed as carcinogens under California's Proposition 65, were detected in the highest concentrations. The study's co-author noted:12

"Our study found that people are exposed to toxic flame retardants every day. These hazardous chemicals are in the air we breathe, the dust we touch and the couches we sit on. Many flame retardants raise health concerns, including cancer, hormone disruption, and harmful effects on brain development. It is troubling to see that a majority of homes have at least one flame retardant at levels beyond what the federal government says is safe. Infants and toddlers who spend much time on the floor are at higher risk for exposure."

What Else Can You do to Reduce Your Family's Exposure to PBDEs?

Manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use to make their products comply with safety regulations.  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.

Other tips you can use to reduce your exposure to PBDEs around your home include:13

  • Be especially careful with polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses and pillows, as these are most likely to contain PBDEs. If you have any of these in your home, inspect them 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 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.
  • You probably also have older sources of the PBDEs known as Deca in your home as well, and these are so toxic they are banned in several states. Deca PBDEs can be found in electronics like TVs, cell phones, kitchen appliances, fans, toner cartridges and more. It's a good idea to wash your hands after handling such items, especially before eating, and at the very least be sure you don't let infants mouth any of these items (like your TV remote control or cell phone).
  • As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool and cotton.
  • Look for organic and "green" building materials, carpeting, baby items and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals and help reduce your overall exposure. Furniture products filled with cotton, wool or polyester tend to be safer than chemical-treated foam; some products also state that they are "flame-retardant free."
  • PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.