Flame Retardant Update: After CA Ban, Lower Toxin Levels In Pregnant Women

Last month, we posted a story on renewed efforts to eliminate toxin-containing flame retardants — used on couches and myriad household items so they don’t combust — from use, including a new push by some students and faculty at Harvard to ban flame retardant dorm furniture from campus.

CommonHealth contributor Karen Weintraub reported:

Flame retardants, also known as PBDE’s (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers) are ubiquitous, required since the 1970s by fire marshals in every state and community, and promoted by the chemical industry that makes them. But critics say they’re problematic — both in everyday use and when burned – and their effectiveness at stopping fires is also being questioned.

pressreleasefinder/flickr

pressreleasefinder/flickr

Flame retardants accumulate in the blood stream and can cause endocrine disruption — essentially mucking with hormones needed to grow, reproduce, and think and avoid cancer, according to studies in animals. They also release cancer-causing chemicals like dioxin when burned, said Robin Dodson, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, an environmental group. Their impact is particularly significant in young children and during pregnancy, research suggests.

Now, researchers in California report that a decade after the state banned certain chemical-containing flame retardants, the level of those chemicals found in the blood of pregnant women has greatly declined.

From the University of San Francisco news release:

A class of flame retardants that has been linked to learning difficulties in children has rapidly declined in pregnant women’s blood since the chemicals were banned in California a decade ago, according to a study led by researchers at UC San Francisco.

Blood levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), tested in patients at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center fell by two-thirds since they were last tested three years ago and found to be the highest levels reported among pregnant women anywhere in the world. The findings were published online on Sept. 25 in Environmental Science & Technology.

Researchers said the dramatic decline was most likely the result of the statewide ban, as well as a voluntary national phase out. But they said the levels fell more quickly than expected, given how persistently these chemicals remain in the environment once they have been introduced.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the extent of the decline,” said Ami R. Zota, ScD, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, and the study’s lead author. Zota conducted the research while she was a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health. “Regulations can have an impact on people’s everyday lives…”

Previous research has shown that the PBDEs present in California house dust have fallen since the ban. But this is the first time that researchers have shown a decline in PBDEs in people since the chemicals were phased out.

San Francisco General Hospital, the city’s public hospital, serves vulnerable populations, who may be at higher risk for exposure to PBDEs because they are more likely to own older, cheaper furniture and live in poor housing conditions. The researchers compared a group of 25 women who came to the hospital from 2008 to 2009 to 36 women who came between 2011 and 2012. The first group had the highest reported levels of PBDEs of any group of pregnant women tested worldwide. But in just three years, overall levels fell by two-thirds.

Every woman tested from 2008-2009 had all five of the PBDEs measured by the researchers in her blood. But by 2011-2012, only one of the PBDEs was present in every woman tested. The researchers did not test the same women at both time points, but they did find that overall levels of all five PBDE’s were significantly lower in the second group.

Although PBDEs have been banned, furniture makers have substituted other chemicals, which may also be dangerous, as a way of meeting state fire safety standards. Chlorinated Tris, for example, is a suspected carcinogen listed on Proposition 65. Others, such as Firemaster 550, have not adequately been tested.

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