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Flame Retardant Chemicals Harm Conception and Pregnancy

Friday, September 1, 2017

Flame retardants found in everyday consumer products such as furniture could decrease a woman’s fertility, and ability to conceive and have a healthy delivery, new research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests.

Infertility is on the rise in America and worldwide. Data from the National Institutes of Health indicate that about 7 percent of men, or 4.7 million, and about 11 percent of women, or 6.7 million, of reproductive age in the U.S. have experienced fertility problems.

Many factors contribute to infertility, including age of the mother and father, diet, stress, body mass index, and exposures to toxic chemicals. Air pollution, and hormone-disrupting pesticides and plastic additives can impair fertility, studies of laboratory animals and people show. The new study adds a particular class of flame retardants, known as organophosphates, to the list.

Researchers from Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital studied 211 women undergoing in vitro fertilization treatments between 2005 and 2015.

Women with higher levels of flame retardants in their bodies were less likely to have successful fertilization or implantation during that treatment cycle compared to women with lower levels of flame retardants. Those with higher levels of the chemicals were also approximately 40 percent less likely to become pregnant or have a live birth.

The new publication adds to the body of science indicating that couples trying to conceive or undergoing fertilization therapy could improve their chances of success by reducing their exposure to toxic environmental chemicals. Given the variety of chemicals associated with hormone disruption, this can be difficult to do.

Earlier research by Harvard scientists also found associations between smoking, diet, and several other environmental contaminants and reproductive success. One previous study reported a relationship between these same flame retardant chemicals and male fertility.

“These findings suggest that exposure to organophosphate flame retardants may be one of many risk factors for lower reproductive success,” said Courtney Carignan, the study’s lead author, formerly a research fellow in Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health, now at Michigan State University. “They also add to the body of evidence indicating a need to reduce the use of these flame retardants and identify safer alternatives.”

For more than a decade EWG has worked to reduce the use of unnecessary and toxic chemicals in household products. Recently we’ve seen some success, as manufacturers have largely stopped adding flame retardants to foam couches, padded chairs, office furniture and baby products. When shopping for new products make sure to look at tags and pick those that are free of these toxic additives. Yet, so long as these toxic flame retardants are used, they can pop even in the most unexpected places, such as nail polish, as EWG reported in 2015.

Here’s another tip: Studies have shown that people who wash their hands more frequently have lower levels of these flame retardant chemicals in their bodies. This is because flame retardants used in furniture foam migrate into the air and dust of our indoor environments, and enter our bodies primarily through accidental dust ingestion as small amounts of dust stick to our hands throughout the day.


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