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Furniture Linked To PBDE Levels In Pregnant Women

Toxic Substances: Women with more stuffed furniture had higher blood levels of the flame retardants

by Laura Cassiday
August 18, 2011

Credit: Rosemary Castorina
California's stringent flammability standards for stuffed furniture may expose residents to high levels of toxic flame retardants.
Credit: Rosemary Castorina
California's stringent flammability standards for stuffed furniture may expose residents to high levels of toxic flame retardants.

California has some of the strictest standards for furniture flammability in the world. Stuffed furniture like couches and chairs must resist igniting when exposed to an open flame for 12 seconds. Furniture manufacturers often meet these standards by applying flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Now a study of pregnant immigrants living in California suggests that living with PBDE-containing furniture may lead to high blood levels of the chemicals (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es104295m).

People in the U.S. have 20 times higher blood levels of PBDEs than people in Europe, according to previous studies. Scientists think that the widespread use of the flame retardants on furniture in the U.S. is to blame. “Virtually every American has PBDEs in their body, but we don’t fully understand the health implications,” says Asa Bradman, associate director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California, Berkeley.

Bradman and his colleagues recently linked high levels of pentaBDE, the most prevalent PBDE, in pregnant women’s blood with reduced thyroid hormone concentrations anddifficulties in becoming pregnant. Animal and human studies have linked pentaBDE to neurological problems in the offspring of mothers exposed to the chemicals during pregnancy. California officials banned the use of pentaBDE in 2006, but the product’s mix of chemicals lingers in the polyurethane foam of older furniture.

In the current study, Bradman, his Berkeley colleague, Rosemary Castorina, and their coworkers wanted to identify factors that lead to high levels of PBDEs in pregnant women. Their investigation is part of a larger study that examines how environmental factors affect the health of children and pregnant women. In 1999 and 2000, researchers collected blood samples from 416 pregnant women, predominantly Mexican immigrants, in Monterey County, Calif. At that time, Bradman and his colleagues interviewed study participants and visited their homes to assess possible factors for toxic chemical exposure, such as diet, years residing in the U.S., income, quality of housekeeping, and number of pieces of stuffed furniture.

More recently, the team measured the levels of PBDEs in the study’s frozen blood samples with isotope dilution mass spectrometry. Among all study participants, total PBDE levels increased 4% with each year residing in the U.S. In addition, pregnant women with three or more pieces of stuffed furniture in their homes had significantly higher PBDE levels than did those with fewer than three.

Bradman points out that previous studies have correlated PBDE levels in household dust with blood concentrations. He and his colleagues think that as the foam in older furniture breaks down, it releases PBDEs into household dust, which people then inhale or ingest.

“This paper highlights the difference in exposure to PBDEs in the U.S. relative to Mexico, and provides more evidence that the source of PBDEs is the furniture in our homes,” says Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist at Duke University. However, she says that the researchers would have established a more direct route for PBDE exposure from furniture if they also had examined PBDE levels in dust from the study participants’ homes.

Now Bradman and his team are studying children born to women in the health study to look for correlations between the children’s PBDE levels and changes in puberty onset, neurodevelopment, and behavior.


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