19 October 2015. Two new studies add to the already documented adverse effects of brominated flame retardants. These are substances that are mixed into plastics and textiles with the intention of preventing or delaying their bursting into flames if exposed to fire. This purpose seems beneficial, but that is not the whole story. The bad news is that evidence is building that these persistent compounds are toxic to human brains during development.
A new study from California followed more than 300 children from birth and up to age 12 years. The mother’s serum concentration of brominated flame retardants during pregnancy was significantly associated with poorer attention and executive function in the child, as revealed by parent interview and neuropsychological testing. These associations were further supported by an additional group of over 300 children first examined at age 9. Overall, the findings are in agreement with previous results from the same group of children, and the new report suggests that the deficits are lasting.
In New York City, at lower exposures, researchers followed 329 women who were pregnant on 11 September 2001 and then examined their children up to age 7 years. The results again showed a greater tendency for attention problems the higher the child’s prenatal exposure to brominated flame retardants.
The studies extend current evidence that these chemicals can damage brain development in children. On the basis on previous reports, the costs due to flame retardant exposures within the EU were recently calculated to be about €10 billion per year, solely in regard to chemical brain drain. Costs in the US are likely much higher due to the higher exposure levels.
However, at the same time, proposed requirements for protecting television cabinets and other electrical equipment against fire is threatening to expand the use of toxic flame retardants, thereby adding to the chemical exposures. Why is this happening when biomedical experts agree that these chemicals are toxic, especially to children’s developing brains? And why is this happening when little if any evidence documents any improved fire protection?
The answer is that international agreement on such standards is thought to be beneficial to the electronics industry and that chemical producers have eagerly praised (and exaggerated) the advantages of the chemical additives. International standards organizations, such as IEC and CENELEC, rely on member states to decide whether to approve new proposals, and each country has one or more standards committees that will determine how to vote. Commonly, these committees have no insight into environmental protection and human health. As a result, votes are often cast without much concern about risks to developing brains.
As this site has previously reported, the brominated flame retardant chemicals commonly used to meet these standards – such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers mentioned above – are well-known developmental neurotoxicants that have been linked to decreased IQ following early-life exposure. Endocrine disruption, including interference with thyroid function, has also been reported.
Alternative flame retardants that contain chlorine instead of bromine are also of high concern, and the American Public Health Association has emphasized that virtually all chlorinated organic chemicals that have been studied exhibit one or more serious toxic effects, including endocrine dysfunction and developmental impairment, often at extremely low doses. Likewise, phosphate flame retardants, marketed as new and safer alternatives, are potentially harmful to human health, as indicated by both epidemiological and animal studies.
Flame retardants have a lengthy history of “regrettable substitutions”: When a harmful flame retardant is removed from use, its replacement is typically a chemical in the same family with similar properties that eventually turns out to also be problematic and must be phased out. In the meantime, the hazardous substances have gained access to our homes, our blood stream and, not the least, our children’s brains. The fact is that flame retardants can migrate from electronics enclosures, such as TV cabinets, into dust and indoor air, and that children have the highest body burdens of these compounds. Moreover, objective fire data do not show a hazard for current TVs from external candle ignition, and the evidence that the chemicals play any important role in protecting against fires is at best anecdotal. The Chicago Tribune has uncovered the deceptive campaigns and the misinformation spread by vested interests.
Fortunately, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is now considering a petition to ban flame retardants in household products. Perhaps linked to this consideration, the U.S. standards organization voted against the most recent proposal to add fire protection to TV sets. In fact, the most recent standards proposals for “Resistance To Candle Flame Ignition” once again failed last week, as a majority of member states voted against. This is of course good news, but past rejections have always been followed by new proposals.
Is it time for the national standards organizations to raise the standard in regard to protecting children against chemical brain drain?