A University of California San Fransisco (UCSF) study has found record-high levels of banned chemicals used as flame retardants in pregnant women. Despite a very small sample size (25 women) the study is a part of growing research looking at the impact of flame retardants on pregnant women and was published in The Journal of Environmental Science & Technology and written up in the LA Times today.
The study also suggests a possible connection between exposure to these chemicals– polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs–and thyroid hormone disruption. According to the lead author of the study, “disruption of thyroid hormone can have a long-lasting developmental impact on her child, including (attention deficit disorders) and reduced IQ.”
It’s distressing to see high levels of PBDEs in Californian women, but not entirely surprising. California has had rigorous flammability standards for furniture since the 1970s. The easiest way to meet the standards has been to add a lot of flame-retarding chemicals to everything from sofas to carpets to mattresses. Though PBDEs have been banned since 2004, they can be stored in a person’s body for years, and are also found in many household products manufactured prior to 2004.
Americans have levels of PBDEs 20 times higher than in European countries where bans on chemicals are much more widespread and have been in place for a lot longer. Other research has shown that Californians have higher levels of PBDEs than other Americans, likely due to the flammability standards. This study also supports previous research suggesting that low-income women tend to have highest levels of these chemicals possibly due to the quality of their (older) furniture or the poor ventilation in low-income housing.
The possible connection between PBDE exposure and developmental problems is very concerning though according to experts much more research is needed. “It is important to note that the authors themselves indicate that ‘further investigation is warranted,’ and that any associations between PBDEs and thyroid hormones analyzed in this study’ could be spurious,’ ” said Jackson Morrill, director of the The American Chemistry Council an organization that represents the chemical industry.
Also, according to an article in SFgate.com, “the UCSF’s preliminary results also conflicted with a UC Berkeley study released last year that looked at the connection between flame retardants and thyroid levels in 270 women at the end of their second trimester.”
It is so important that we continue to research the long term impact of these chemicals and act swiftly to prevent any potential harm they can cause. Throughout pregnancy there’s such an enormous amount of pressure on individual women to guard their bodies against everything from a slice of deli meat to a whiff of new paint. Our government must show the same vigilance about persistent chemicals in the environment.