Chemical in Carpets, Plastics could Harm Unborn Babies

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
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Findings from scientists suggest the flame retardant PBDE found in carpets, textiles, foam furnishings, electronics and plastics could harm unborn babies. PBDE’s were found in a study to affect thyroid function that could affect brain development and normal fetal growth.

The study is the second to link flame retardants to human health. A study released earlier this year showed that women with higher levels of PBDE have a more difficult time getting pregnant.

Principal investigator, Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health says, "Despite the prevalence of these flame retardants, there are few studies that have examined their impact on human health. Our results suggest that exposure to PBDE flame retardants may have unanticipated human health risks."

PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers are everywhere in the household. The flame retardant compound is in carpeting, electronics, foam inside of upholstery used in furnishings, and plastics. The study examined 270 women who were part of the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) study designed to measure a woman’s reproductive health.

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Researchers measured concentrations of 10 PBDE’s found most frequently. They found that the chemical found in flame retardants seems to disrupt thyroid hormone function - for each tenfold increase in PBDE concentrations the odds of subclinical hyperthyroidism were increased 1.9 times, though researchers aren’t sure how the disruption occurs.

"Low TSH and normal T4 levels are an indication of subclinical hyperthyroidism, which is often the first step leading toward clinical hyperthyroidism," said Chevrier. "Though the health effect of subclinical hyperthyroidism during pregnancy is not well understood, maternal clinical hyperthyroidism is linked to altered fetal neurodevelopment, increased risk of miscarriage, premature birth and intrauterine growth retardation."

Flame retardants are still found in the home and are now linked to disruption of thyroid hormone that can affect fetal growth and brain development. The PBDE components pentaBDE and octaBDE are still present in products made before 2004 but are banned in eight US states including California and in Europe. By 2013 flame retardants containing PBDE are expected to be phased out in the United States altogether and replaced with brominated and chlorinated compounds.

Environmental Health Perspectives: doi:10.1289/ehp.1001905

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