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Fire retardants: Disproportionate risk to small children

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Mom and toddlerWe tested 20 mothers and their toddlers for toxic fire retardants and found that the small children typically had three times as much of these hormone-disrupting chemicals in their blood as their mothers - and much higher levels than newborns. Participant Katrina Alcorn responded this way when she learned of her child's blood levels:

Since we did the study, I've become much more aware about what we buy and we're much more on top of the hand washing before meals. It was bad enough to know our levels were high, but it was a shock when we had our furniture tested and found out that the worst culprit was the glider chair that I'd bought to nurse my daughter in when she was a baby. I can't believe it was legal to sell furniture that is essentially poisoning you without you knowing it.

Why are kids levels higher? Not surprisingly, these elevated levels are caused by childhood exposures to household items containing PBDEs, a class of fire retardant added to household furniture and electronic items. Yes, the living room couch, that comfy reading chair, and your laptop where the kids watch videos or type their letters. And it all happens through that childhood habit we all know so well: hands and stuff in the mouth. Kids ingest roughly 10 times more PBDEs than adults from hand-to-mouth contact.

Also not surprisingly, levels are higher in the U.S. because other countries don't require fire retardants and our stringent fire safety standards protect us from potential fires but not from guaranteed chemical toxicity.

Is PBDE exposure a problem? Definitely. PBDEs have been proven to be especially toxic to the developing brain and reproductive system, and the most sensitive periods for adverse effects appear to be late pregnancy and early childhood. Exactly the time their levels are so high. Read more about the risks here.

Is the U.S. doing anything about it? Not so much. There are three types of PBDEs and they are regulated differently. Penta and Octa can no longer be produced in the U.S., but it's legal to import them on products, so exposure is possible on imported furniture. There are no federal restrictions on Deca. Other countries and some U.S. states have banned some or all three types: the E.U., Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands have banned all three, and here in the U.S., 11 states have banned the penta and octa types and two states have banned deca and 10 others have proposed a ban. Time for Congress to step up to the plate, don't you think?

Reducing your exposure. Until PBDEs are no longer allowed in US products, there are several actions you can take to reduce your family's exposure, mainly avoiding electronics and foam furniture with PBDEs - ask when buying, it'll protect you and share consumer concern. Read the report's full recommendations here. You can also take these simple steps:

  1. Inspect foam items and replace any with ripped covers or mishapen/breaking down foam.
  2. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
  3. Don't reupholster foam furniture.
  4. Carefully remove old carpet because the padding may contain PBDEs.
  5. Have small children wash their hands frequently so they put clean hands in their mouths!

Read it for yourself. In our full report you'll find more details on our analysis, differences between children and adults that make children uniquely vulnerable to toxic chemicals, government and industry actions to phase out PBDEs, and more.