Meant to Protect, Flame Retardants May Harm

If a recent study linking household chemicals to infertility isn't a wakeup call to anyone still in denial as to the unseen dangers lurking in our homes, I don't know what is.

According to a recent story in the Los Angeles Times, researchers at the University of California Berkeley say flame-retardant chemicals found in foam furniture, electronics, fabrics, carpets, and plastics may decrease the likelihood of pregnancy.

The study's lead author states that exposure is mainly due to leaching; in other words, our families are constantly breathing in toxic dust.

The study, published January 26, 2010, in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, is just the latest in a series of papers released in the last two years suggesting that the chemicals -- polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs -- adversely affect our health. PBDEs have been used as flame retardants for 40 years now. While they're being phased out and have been banned in California -- they are still found in products made before 2004. In the UC Berkeley study, researchers measured PBDE blood levels in 223 pregnant women.

They found that each tenfold increase in blood concentration of the chemicals was linked to a 30 percent decrease in the likelihood of becoming pregnant each month. Dr. Hugh Taylor, an expert on endocrine-disrupting chemicals at Yale University who was not involved in the new study, told the Times, "While you can't show cause and effect" with association studies such as these, "we have cause-and-effect studies in animals, and we have association studies in humans. I think that is fairly convincing."

Previous studies suggest that 97 percent of Americans have detectable levels of the substances in their blood. While household products are considered a major source of exposure, PBDEs are also found in some foods, particularly dairy products and higher-fat meat and fish. "PBDEs have the ability to just leach out of these products into our environment," Kim Harley, the lead author of the study and associate director of the Center for Children's Environmental Health Research at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, told the Times. "We're thinking the routes are probably ingestion or hand to mouth. But it seems that the larger route of exposure is house dust."

How the chemicals might impair fertility is unclear, Harley said, but one of the strongest associations is with thyroid hormone, which "does seem to play an important role in fertility. Either too low or too high levels can impair fertility. PBDEs also seem to mimic estrogen. It could be through a hormonal mechanism. But we need more research on that." Taylor, director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Yale, added that fertility may be one of the first biological processes affected by chemical exposures. "Fertility is easy to perturb," he said, adding that miscarriage might also be related to environmental exposures.

He also wondered how a mother's exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals might affect the next generation's fertility. These findings won't be shocking to Nation members. Seventh Generation has been at the forefront in the fight against toxic household chemicals. If you haven't joined our Million Baby Crawl yet, please do so here.

As for what's being done about PBDEs, at the end of 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency and the two largest manufacturers of one type of PBDE agreed to phase out the chemical. However, as UC Berkeley's Harley points out, understanding their effects is important, given that they are lurking in "couches, chairs, TVs, carpet padding...things that will stay in our house for years to come." So what can be done to reduce your exposure? The Washington Toxics Coalition offers some important tips here. What's your reaction to this study? Do you know of other anti-PBDEs efforts? What should all of us be doing?