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Firemaster 550 Used in Infant Products May Cause Health Issues in Children

flame retardants, child health and safety

The original purpose of putting flame retardants on children’s sleepwear was obviously as protection in the case of a fire that broke out during the night. However, research has found that the dangers of the chemicals themselves may outweigh the potential protection the product may give.

A flame-retardant mixture known as “Firemaster 550,” developed by Chemtura Corp. to replace a class of fire retardants being phased out because of their safety concerns, has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor that causes extreme weight gain, early onset of puberty and cardiovascular health effects in laboratory animals.

Researchers from North Carolina State University and Duke University exposed Firemaster 550 to a group of pregnant lab rats. One group, a “low-dose” group, ingested 100 micrograms of the flame retardant once per day throughout pregnancy and nursing. The second “high-dose” group ingested 1,000 micrograms on the same schedule. The control group was not exposed to Firemaster 550.

Firemaster 550 is made up of a “proprietary mixture” of four principle component chemicals, including bromine and phosphorus. The chemical data sheets notes that it does not contain brominated diphenyl ethers, considered toxic by the Environmental Protection Agency. The product is used in polyurethane foam in a variety of products ranging from mattresses to infant nursing pillows.

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The team detected TBB (2-ethylhexyl-2,3,4,5-tetrabromobenzoate) in the fat of all the exposed dams (mothers) and offspring, but none of the unexposed animals. This indicates that the flame retardant is capable of crossing the placenta during pregnancy, reaching infants via breast milk, or both. TBB raised concerns with the American Chemical Society in 2004 as it was shown that it could build up in fish and damage their DNA.

Those exposed to the chemicals had much higher thyroid hormone levels, important because these hormones influence brain development during pregnancy and many other biological functions, such as metabolism. The exposed pups had extremely rapid weight gain by the time they were weaned from nursing. The high-dose male pups were 60% heavier than the control group and the high-dose female pups were 31% heavier. The excess weight contributed to the early onset of puberty in the female rats.

Other concerns found in the exposed animals were difficulty regulating blood glucose (diabetes) and thickened heart ventricle walls, suggestive of cardiovascular disease.

“This study indicates that Firemaster 550 is an endocrine disruptor, and that raises a lot of important questions,” says Dr. Heather Patisaul PhD, an assistant professor of biology at NC State. “This was a small-scale study. We need to continue this work with a larger sample size and look at a broader range of potential effects related to obesity, thyroid hormone function and metabolic syndrome. We also want to determine which of the component chemicals in Firemaster 550 are responsible for the various effects.”

“Accumulation and Endocrine Disrupting Effects of the Flame Retardant Mixture Firemaster 550 in Rats: An Exploratory Assessment,” is published online in the Journal of Biochemical and Molecular Toxicology.
North Carolina State University (2012, October 24). Flame retardant 'Firemaster 550' is an endocrine disruptor, study finds. ScienceDaily.
Chemical and Engineering News, American Chemical Society, “New Flame Retardant Levels Rising Rapidly”, December 7, 2011.