July 14th, 2011
By: Sally Oaken
Potentially toxic flame retardants, many of them containing compounds known as penta brominated diphenyl ethers, are a common component of many household products containing polyurethane foam.
Originally intended to increase product safety by decreasing fire risk, these compounds have come under increasing scrutiny since the early 1990s due to growing evidence of their damaging health effects.
But even though these chemicals have been banned in 172 countries and 12 U.S. states, they continue to make their way into a wide variety of products found in U.S. households, including toys and upholstered furniture.
In an especially disconcerting study conducted by researchers at Duke University earlier this year, potentially toxic flame retardants were found in 80 percent of samples of polyurethane foam collected from baby products commonly and legally sold in the U.S.. Samples were taken from car seats, high chairs, strollers, nursing pillows and bassinet mattresses.
The results of the study were published in 2011 by the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science and Technology, and suggest that additional research is warranted “to specifically measure infants exposure to these flame retardants from intimate contact with these products, and to determine if there are any associated health concerns.”
Penta brominated diphenyl ethers, also known PBDEs, are known to bio-accumulate in fatty tissue, breast milk and blood after being inhaled or ingested with food.
The highest and most dangerous concentrations of ingestible and inhalable PBDEs occur in plants that repair and recycle products containing these chemicals, and also in domestic environments, since they persistently show up in household products containing polyurethane foam.
Recent studies show that in the U.S., blood concentrations of PBDEs are much higher in children than in adults. These chemicals are known to have damaging effects on nervous system development and can also disrupt the function of estrogen and thyroid hormones.
When children are exposed to these chemicals early in life, either through inhalation or ingestion with breast milk, their damaging effects have been known to persist into adulthood and may include reduced performance on intelligence tests and behavioral changes like hyperactivity.
The Duke University study suggests that even though the manufacture and distribution of PBDEs is subject to increasing restrictions in the U.S. and Europe, these dangerous flame retardants are still finding their way into our homes and the body tissues of developing infants. It may be wise to check labels carefully and investigate PBDE levels before exposing infants to polyurethane foam products.