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Study: Class of flame retardant chemicals declines in kids' blood

Apr 5, 2018

If you see the old label on the left, the piece of upholstered furniture likely contains flame retardants. If you see the new label on the right, it will tell you for sure whether it contains flame retardants.
Credit Mark Brush and Arlene Blum

Flame retardant chemicals are in our furniture, in carpet padding, electronics and car seats, but they don’t stay put. They leach out of these products and get into our bodies.

Some of these chemicals, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, were phased out of use starting in 2004.

A new study in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology finds levels of PBDEs in kids' blood have been declining.

Julie Herbstman is an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She studied levels of PBDEs in kids’ blood over a 15-year period, between 1998 and 2013.

Herbstman says as those PBDE chemicals were phased out, the levels of these chemicals found in kids has gone down. She says PBDE exposure has been linked to health risks, including lower IQs and an increase in attention problems in kids, such as ADHD.

She says there’s no known safe level of PBDE exposure. 

“What we find is that as exposure comes down, the number of attention problems also go down,” Herbstman says. “Or the reduction in IQ is less severe. So I wouldn’t say that there’s a safe level, but I’m certainly happy to see lower exposures, because lower is certainly better.”

It’s important to note that Herbstman detected PBDEs in all the kids she studied. She says that indicates there’s more that needs to be done to limit exposure to the chemicals.

“They’re used in products that you just don’t replace every day,” Herbstman says. “Not everyone goes out and replaces their rug or their furniture, their couch, or electronics. They’re just products that have long lives.”

Flame retardant chemicals in furniture are typically added to polyurethane foam. The chemicals leach out and can get into dust, and then we can get exposed when we get that dust on our hands - and say, eat a sandwich without first washing our hands. Herbstman says it's a good idea to try to cut down on dust in your home: use a wet mop or a vacuum with a HEPA filter. She also recommends washing your hands before eating.

As we reported previously, a law change in California allows furniture makers to meet a flammability test without using flame retardants in the foam. This means you can now buy furniture without flame retardants.

“If you walk into a store and flip over a new product you’ll see a different tag,” Herbstman says. “And that tag will tell you: yes, it meets the safety standards, but it meets the safety standards by using chemicals or by not using chemicals.”

When these kinds of PBDEs were phased out, companies replaced them with other kinds of flame retardants. Herbstman says they're starting to detect those new chemicals in kids' blood, and she says those chemicals show up in everyone they've tested.

"So that's a bit concerning because not very much is known about those other exposures," she says.

You can listen to the interview with Julie Herbstman above.