In 2009, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants banned the production of pentabromodiphenyl ether, a common mixture of related flame-retardant compounds used in foam furniture. Because pentaBDE and other polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) can linger in the home for years, scientists want to understand how the flame retardants enter our bodies and whether they affect our health. A new analysis links levels of these chemicals in children not only to their mother’s PBDE exposure but to the lack of safe play areas in their neighborhoods (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es3003487).
The results are part of a study in California that began in 1999, looking at the effects of environmental factors, such as pesticides and flame retardants, on a child’s development. The researchers identified 601 pregnant women in Monterey County, who had immigrated to the U.S., and tracked their children’s health starting at birth.
Asa Bradman of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues have now measured PBDE levels in the blood of 272 of the children at age seven. The scientists also collected information about each child’s home, home life, and neighborhood. Children’s blood levels of three pentaBDE compounds were elevated when their mothers reported a lack of safe places to play in the neighborhood, the scientists found. The chemical concentrations also increased with two other characteristics: the mother’s PBDE levels when she was pregnant and the number of months she exclusively breastfed the child.
Children in unsafe neighborhoods might spend more time indoors, where they could encounter dust containing fire retardants, Bradman says. Although other studies had linked mothers’ breastfeeding to elevated PBDE levels in younger children (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es070217u), he was surprised to see PBDE levels in school-aged children associated with exposure in the womb or through breastfeeding. Children encountering these compounds early may carry PBDEs in their bodies for many years, Bradman says.
How these flame retardants affect children’s health is still unknown, Bradman notes.