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Flame retardant exposure as bad for IQ as lead

A new study has found that prenatal exposure to flame retardants can be significantly linked to lower IQs and greater hyperactivity in five-year-old children. The findings are published online today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Flame retardants are commonly found  in house dust as well as indoor air, which is considerably more contaminated with these chemicals than outdoor air.

Most couches sold in the U.S. contain toxic flame retardants.
Most couches sold in the U.S. contain toxic flame retardants.

The study specifically looked at PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers. This is an industrial toxic chemical that’s been used for decades in electronic plastics, furniture, and mattresses. The researchers found that a 10-fold increase in PBDE concentrations in early pregnancy, when the fetal brain is developing, was associated with a 4.5 IQ decline, which is comparable with the impact of environmental lead exposure according to the authors.

How to protect your family

The Washington Toxics Coalition advises these steps to reduce your exposure. Details are at their fact sheet here. 

  • Buy PBDE-free furniture. Choose furniture that does not contain PBDEs, which are often used in furniture upholstery and foam.
  • Make electronics PBDE-free. Choose electronics made with alternatives to PBDEs and other flame retardants, available from Apple and Sony.
  • Avoid farmed fish. European and U.S. farmed salmon have particularly high levels of PBDEs. Choose wild salmon instead.
  • Reduce animal fats. Choose lean meat and poultry cuts and low-fat dairy products. Cut visible fat off meat and poultry before cooking, and choose lower-fat cooking methods, such as broiling, grilling, roasting, or pressure-cooking.

PBDEs remain all too common because we don’t have an effective national chemical policy. A new California policy could alter markets in favor of flame retardant-free furniture, but that’s still unclear. More on that is here. In the end, what’s needed is real reform at the federal level and you can help. You can write to Congress by taking action here, and asking for real reform.