Flame Retardants Damaging Kids' Brains

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August 22, 2017 | 14,912 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Greater exposures to flame retardants during pregnancy are associated with lower intelligence in children
  • For every ten-fold increase in prenatal exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), there was a 3.7-point decline in IQ test scores in children
  • 1 in 6 U.S. children now suffers from neurodevelopmental disorders, and research suggests PBDEs and other flame retardants are likely playing a role in the increasing rates of these disorders

By Dr. Mercola

Flame retardant chemicals are found in everything from furniture and mattresses to electronics and baby toys. Notorious neurotoxins, these widespread chemicals have been linked to serious health risks like infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, hormone disruptions, various forms of cancer and reduced IQ scores and behavioral problems in children.

One variety of flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), resembles the molecular structure of PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development.

As one in six U.S. children now suffers from neurodevelopmental disorders, research into possible environmental culprits is ongoing, and a recent study published in Environmental Health Perspectives revealed PBDEs are likely playing a role in the increasing rates of these disorders. In fact, the researchers concluded, "Preventing developmental exposure to PBDEs could help prevent loss of human intelligence."1

Developmental Exposure to Flame Retardants Reduces IQ

A systematic review and meta-analysis looked into exposures to PBDEs that occurred near conception or during in utero, perinatal or childhood time periods. Children experience greater exposure to chemicals pound-for-pound than adults,2 and though the blood-brain barrier is fully formed at birth, its function may be immature, which may allow greater chemical exposures to reach their developing brains.

Children also have lower levels of some chemical-binding proteins, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which allows more of a chemical to reach their organs, while systems that detoxify and excrete chemicals in adults are not fully developed in the children.

These factors, coupled with the fact that a child will be around for 80 years or more, allowing more than enough time for chemicals to do their damage, signals a major challenge for kids born today. Exposure that occurs in utero may be even more problematic, as EWG reported:

"The pace and complexity of growth and development in the womb are unmatched later in life. Three weeks after conception, an embryo, still only 1/100th the size of a water droplet, has nevertheless grown at such an explosive rate that were it not to slow down, it would be born literally the size of a million Earths.

… At no other time in life does a person create so much from so little in so short a time. Industrial chemicals that interrupt this intricate process can, at high levels, wreak havoc in the form of severe birth defects, or at lower levels cause subtle but important changes in development that surface later in childhood as learning or behavioral problems, or in adulthood in the form of certain cancers or perhaps neurodegenerative disease."

The featured study revealed, in fact, that greater exposures to flame retardants during pregnancy are associated with lower intelligence in the child. Specifically, for every ten-fold increase in prenatal exposure to PBDEs, there was a 3.7-point decline in IQ test scores in children.3 According to Newsweek:4

"Exactly how PBDEs cause a decline in intelligence is unknown. However, research increasingly suggests they impair the activity of the endocrine system, the body's delicate system of hormone-producing glands that controls everything from daily sleep-wake cycles to sexual development. And during pregnancy, the endocrine system has an enormous effect on the development of the fetus's brain."

Past research has also demonstrated that children born to mothers with higher levels of flame retardant chemicals in their body had a 4.5-point average decrease in IQ,5 while exposure in childhood is strongly associated with poor attention span, reduced fine motor coordination and a decrease in cognitive ability.6

'Millions of IQ Points Lost'

While a few points' reduction in IQ may seem small, the widespread exposure to flame retardants makes the decrease especially serious. Study co-author Tracey Woodruff told Medicine Net, "Even the loss of a few IQ points on a population-wide level means more children who need early interventions, and families who may face personal and economic burdens for the rest of their lives."7

She continued to SF Gate, "Despite a series of bans and phaseouts, nearly everyone is still exposed to PBDE flame retardants, and children are at the most risk … Our findings should be a strong wake-up call to those policymakers currently working to weaken or eliminate environmental health protections."8 PBDE usage was phased out of new products in 2004, but it still exists widely in old furniture and other products. You can be exposed to the chemicals via food and household dust, for example.

In a U.S. study conducted by EWG, flame retardants were detected in every sample of household dust, at concerning levels. "The average level of brominated fire retardants measured in dust from nine homes was more than 4,600 parts per billion (ppb)," EWG reported, continuing:9

"A tenth sample, collected in a home where products with fire retardants were recently removed, contained more than 41,000 ppb of brominated fire retardants — twice as high as the maximum level previously reported by any dust study worldwide. Like PCBs, their long-banned chemical relatives, the brominated fire retardants known as PBDEs … are persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative, building up in people's bodies over a lifetime.

In minute doses they and other brominated fire retardants impair attention, learning, memory and behavior in laboratory animals. EWG's test results indicate that consumer products, not industrial releases, are the most likely sources of the rapid buildup of PBDEs in people, animals and the environment … Our findings raise concerns that children may ingest significant amounts of toxic fire retardants via dust."

Flame Retardants Alter Thyroid Hormones, Which Could Affect Children's IQ

One way that exposure to flame retardants during pregnancy may harm children's IQ could be via their influence on thyroid hormones. How do flame retardants harm your thyroid? Estrogen levels regulate thyroid hormones, and PBDEs are known to disrupt estrogenic activity as well as thyroid levels. Past research has suggested, for instance, that PBDEs can lead to decreases in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).10

In another study, researchers found women with the highest concentrations of PBDEs in their blood had an increased risk of thyroid disease compared to those with lower concentrations.11 That link was particularly strong among postmenopausal women. Duke University environmental chemist Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., explained that the chemical structure of one class of flame retardants is very similar to human thyroid hormones.

"There are a number of different pathways by which these chemicals can interfere with thyroid hormone regulation," she said. "And we know that their use, and our exposure to these chemicals, has increased tremendously over the past several decades."12 Exposures that occur during pregnancy could be problematic, especially if they cause thyroid deficiency, because even a mild, symptom-free case of thyroid deficiency in a pregnant woman can affect her child's IQ scores years later.

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) revealed that children aged 7 to 9 who had mothers with untreated hypothyroidism in pregnancy had IQ scores about seven points lower than youngsters of women without such a deficiency.13 Not to mention, research presented at the Endocrine Society's 2017 99th annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, revealed that exposure to flame retardants in the home is associated with the most common type of thyroid cancer, papillary thyroid cancer (PTC).14

Maine Passes First US Law to Phase Out All Flame Retardants

In August 2017, after overriding a veto from the governor, Maine lawmakers passed a law to phase out all flame retardant chemicals in home furniture. While existing inventories of furniture will be allowed to be sold, this ends after January 1, 2019 — the date which furniture containing flame retardants may no longer be sold in the state of Maine.

While the chemical industry claims such chemicals save lives in fires, firefighters are among their leading opponents. Ironically, the chemicals may make entering a burning home even more dangerous for firefighters than it would be otherwise.

Unbeknownst to many, furniture and other objects doused in flame retardant chemicals can still catch fire. Worse, they may release higher levels of toxic chemicals upon burning than untreated objects. California female firefighters aged 40 to 50 are six times more likely to develop breast cancer than the national average. Why California?

Likely because in 1975 California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) was passed, which required furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small flame without igniting — a requirement manufacturers met by loading up furniture with flame retardants. On a positive note, California revised TB117 so that an open flame test is no longer required.

As of January 1, 2015, compliance with the updated TB117-2013 became mandatory, which requires upholstered furniture sold in the state to no longer smolder 45 minutes after a lit cigarette is placed on it. This requirement can be met without the use of flame retardant chemicals (although the law does not ban their use). Firefighters of both genders also have higher rates of cancer, in part because of the high levels of dioxins and furans they're exposed to when flame retardant chemicals burn.

A study from the American Chemical Society (ACS) even found certain flame retardant chemicals increased the amount of toxic carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gas in a fire.15 Inhaling these gasses is the leading cause of death in fires, not burns. It's no wonder, then, why firefighters are among those seeking bans on these toxic chemicals. Ronnie Green, of the Professional Firefighters of Maine, told WABI 5 News:16

"There's no need for those chemicals. There are safer alternatives. There's fabrics we can use that are actually made right here in the state of Maine that can do a better job at flame spread.

Smoke detectors and sprinklers save lives, chemicals don't … The older guys, like myself so to speak, that have been in the business for a long time, we're not going to see the benefit of this, but for the younger generation moving forward, the less we can expose those guys to the chemicals, the more we can do to mitigating anything."

Chemical Ban Causes Flame Retardants in Women's Breast Milk to Drop

Removing these toxic chemicals from household goods is essential to protecting future generations. American mothers have levels of flame retardants in their breast milk that are about two orders of magnitude greater than in European countries where these chemicals are not permitted,17 and children have been found to have levels of flame retardants that are as much as five times higher than their mothers.18

However, a study conducted by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) revealed that levels of the chemicals in breast milk dropped 39 percent from the first sampling period — conducted between 2003 and 2005 — and the second sampling period conducted between 2009 and 2012, after flame retardant chemicals were phased out.19 That being said, there's still room for much improvement.

An EWG analysis of blood samples from mothers and their infants' umbilical cords revealed five types of PBDEs, three of which were detected at higher levels in the infants than their mothers. An EWG press released reported:20

"'Considering, that these chemicals have been banned for more than a decade now, I was expecting to see lower exposure levels,' said the lead author of the study, Indiana University research scientist Amina Salamova … The findings underscore the fact that these and other chemicals just don't disappear from our environment once they've been banned. They remain in us years later, and babies and children are often the ones most exposed."

How to Protect Yourself and Your Children From Flame Retardant Chemicals

If you have older furniture in your home but aren't ready to replace it, consider replacing the foam cushions with flame-retardant-free foam. If you're not sure whether your furniture's foam contains these chemicals, Duke University scientists will test it for you. All you need to remove is a sample the size of a marble and it will be tested for the presence of seven common flame retardants.

The research lab only has the capacity to analyze 50 samples per month, and they close submissions once the quota is reached. Before sending in your sample, check with the Duke University Superfund Submit a Sample website to see if they're still accepting submissions (for best results, check in on the first of the month). In addition, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure, including these tips from the Green Science Policy Institute:21

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Environmental Health Perspectives August 2017, Volume 125, Issue 8
  • 2 Nature Biotechnology 27, 804 - 805 (2009)
  • 3, 4 Newsweek August 4, 2017
  • 5 Environmental Health Perspectives August 2014; 122(8)
  • 6 Environmental Health Perspectives, 2013 Feb;121(2):257-62
  • 7 Medicine Net August 4, 2017
  • 8 SF Gate August 3, 2017
  • 9 EWG May 12, 2004
  • 10 Environ Health Perspect. 2010 October; 118(10): 1444–1449.
  • 11 Environmental Health May 24, 2016
  • 12 Duke Forward
  • 13 N Engl J Med 1999; 341:549-555
  • 14 Science Daily April 2, 2017
  • 15 American Chemical Society, March 27, 2012
  • 16 WABI 5 News August 3, 2017
  • 17 University of New Hampshire February 16, 2015
  • 18 Environmental Science & Technology August 4, 2014 E
  • 19 Chemosphere. 2016 May;150:505-13.
  • 20 EWG July 11, 2017
  • 21 Green Science Policy Institute, Flame Retardants