A new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health shows that exposure to flame retardants commonly found in furniture, carpets, upholstery and electronics is linked to poorer attention, fine motor skills delay and other health problems in school-aged children.
The report, published on November 15 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, measured the effects of PBDEs—polybrominated diphenyl ethers—chemicals that can leach out into the environment and are inhaled or ingested through dust, on California children. Studies have shown that children in the state have among the highest concentrations of the chemical in the world, probably because of California’s strict fire-safety law, enacted in 1975. The law requires that all furniture withstand 12 seconds of flame without catching fire, and PBDEs are used to comply.
Researchers collected blood samples from close to 300 women during pregnancy and from their children when they were seven years old. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed the samples, and the children participated in a number of standardized tests to assess their motor skills, attention spans, and IQs.
Quoted in a news release from UC Berkeley, study lead author Brenda Eskenazi, Jennifer and Brian Maxwell Professor of Maternal and Child Health and Epidemiology, “This is the largest and most comprehensive study to date to examine neurobehavioral development in children in relation to body burden measures of PBDE flame retardants. We measured PBDEs both in the mothers during pregnancy and in the children themselves. It shows there is a relationship of in utero and childhood levels to decrements in fine motor function, attention, and IQ.”
The research was conducted as part of a larger study for the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) that examines environmental exposures and reproductive health of primarily Mexican-Americans living in an agricultural community in California’s Monterey County. Earlier studies showed that children living in that community had PBDE blood concentrations seven times higher than those children living in Mexico.
The use of PDBEs increased in the 1970s, and today the chemicals can be found in the blood of up close to 100 percent of U.S. residents, with those in California having the highest levels. While many PBDEs have been banned in several states, they are still present in furniture and other products made before 2004. Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health is working to overhaul the state’s fire-safety law, and several manufacturers have already agreed to phase out one type of PBDEs by 2013.
The chemicals will still exist in homes for years to come, but some ways to minimize exposure include:
- Seal tears in couches, sofas and other upholstered furniture
- Mop floors and vacuum frequently
- Wash your hands often—especially important for children