Flame retardants are the new lead

5 June, 2014

It’s always a good day when you hear that levels of a particular toxin that harms children are going down.

Earlier this year a report out of Monroe County, New York, showed that levels of lead in children there were declining. This mirrors a national downward trend which suggests that levels of this neurotoxic ‘heavy metal’, which can harm children’s mental development, are finally dropping.

My happiness didn’t last too long, however. In a new study, Canadian researchers measured levels of flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ether, (PBDE) in 309 US women at 16 weeks of pregnancy, and followed their children to the age of five.

What they found was that as levels in mums went up, their children’s IQs dropped. A 10-fold increase in PDBE above ‘normal’ levels in early pregnancy when the fetal brain is developing, was associated with a 4.5 point drop in IQ. This is an effect comparable to that of environmental lead exposure.

PBDEs are developmental neurotoxins. In spite of this fact they are widely used as flame retardants in furniture, carpet padding, baby car seats and mattresses amongst other products.

A decade ago, health concerns led to a phase-out in the use of penta brominated diphenyl ethers (pentaBDE) – once the most popular flame retardant – added during the manufacture of polyurethane foam.

PentaBDE is now banned in 172 countries and 12 US states and was voluntarily phased out by US manufacturers in 2005.

In 2009 the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) added penta BDE and hexabromodiphenyl ether/heptabromodiphenyl ether to a list of banned Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) due to concerns over toxicity in wildlife and mammals.

While some PBDE-containing products have been slowly removed from the marketplace, others remain on sale and in any case PDBEs are slow to biodegrade in the environment and in our bodies. As a result nearly all homes and offices are still polluted with PBDEs and, the researchers say, it will take decades to get them out of our homes and our bodies.

As if to underscore the point, in 2011 US scientists reported detecting potentially toxic flame retardants – among them pentaBDE –  in 80% of the polyurethane foam samples collected from 101 common baby products. These products included in car seats, bassinet mattresses, nursing pillows, high chairs, strollers, and other polyurethane foam-containing products designed for newborns, infants and toddlers.

In 2012 more than half the sofas tested in one US study contained potentially toxic or untested chemical flame retardants – including TDBPP (Tris) and pentaBDE – known to pose a risk to human health.

Other flame retardants of known toxicity, such as chlorinated organophosphates and hexabromocyclododecane (HBCYD), were also detected. In fact, every home tested had HBCYD, a human reproductive, neurological, and developmental toxin.

In another study scientists at the Silent Spring Institute tested for 49 flame retardant chemicals in household dust, the main route of exposure for people and especially for children. Forty-four flame retardant chemicals were detected and 36 were found in at least 50% of the samples, sometimes at levels of health concern.

In addition to damaging brains, many flame retardants are hormone disrupters. In particular PBDEs, HBCYD, and TBBPA (brominated Tris), affect thyroid hormone, which is important for brain development. The breakdown products of Tris damage DNA and cause mammary tumours in animal studies, raising concern about breast cancer in people.

This is how we deal with the problem of toxic chemicals. We use them until we can’t use them anymore, usually because someone got sick, then we swap them for chemicals that are just as toxic. In between time we refuse to study their toxic effects and we take the absence of evidence as evidence of safety.

Programmes like the EU’s REACH legislation were designed to stop us being so passive and lazy.

REACH was significantly weakened by chemical industry lobbyists before it was put into force; even so it remains one of the best examples of its kind of chemical regulation. Now reports suggest that REACH could end up being a casualty of the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), the aim of which is to “harmonise” US and EU regulations (i.e. force the EU to be less vigilant) on products ranging from genetically modified foods to chemical additives, drugs and medical equipment.

TAFTA falls under the umbrella of the increasingly toxic Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Protocol, or TTIP.

I was brought up to believe that we should try to leave a better world for our children. If there was a global scorecard quantifying how effective our efforts have been so far, what do you suppose it would say?

Pat Thomas, Editor