New flame retardants, old problems

October 22, 2019

Bloomington, IN--New flame retardants escaping from our TVs, other electrical and electronic products, and children's car seats are just as toxic as the flame retardants they're intended to replace, according to a peer-reviewed study published today in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The authors found that the replacement chemicals, called organophosphate flame retardants, have been associated with lower IQ in children, reproductive problems, and other serious health harms.

Flame retardants pose a particularly grave threat to children. Babies are born with the same level as their mothers and are further exposed through hand-to-mouth behavior. Young children can have 3 to 10 times the flame retardant levels of adults, or even more. This can harm their developing brains and reproductive organs at the most vulnerable time.

"We need to realize that these flame retardants threaten the brain development of a whole generation," said retired NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum.

Flame retardant chemicals aren't necessary, or even effective, for reducing fire hazard in many products. These chemicals are added to meet flammability regulations. But research shows they often delay ignition only a few seconds, and make fires more dangerous.

After years of research and advocacy, dangerous flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were phased out of use in furniture foam, electronics, and children's products. While their phaseout was initially celebrated as a victory for human health, PBDEs have been swapped out with organophosphate flame retardants in many products.

Like the old PBDE flame retardants, organophosphate flame retardants are continuously migrating out of products and dropping into dust. When dust contaminated with flame retardants gets on your hands, you can end up eating the flame retardants along with your sandwich. The scientists also found that levels of organophosphate flame retardants are often 10 to 100 times higher in air, dust, and water than the previous flame retardants.

Most concerning of all, organophosphate flame retardants were found in nearly every person studied. Several were found at levels high enough to threaten fertility in adults and healthy brain development in children.

"These results show the danger of the whack-a-mole approach to chemical policy," said Dr. Marta Venier, an Associate Scientist at Indiana University. "When manufacturers have to stop using a toxic chemical, they often replace it with a similar chemical with similar harms. In the case of flame retardants, we're jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire."

For this study, the investigators reviewed nearly one hundred peer-reviewed scientific papers on flame retardants. They compared research findings on the health effects, environmental harms, and chemical properties of the older PBDEs and newer organophosphates.

They found that the replacement chemicals are carried by wind and water far from their origin--even to the ocean depths, icy mountain tops, and Earth's poles. "Organophosphates are now found worldwide, polluting areas where flame retardants were never used," according to Professor Miriam Diamond from the University of Toronto.

The authors call for manufacturers to increase fire safety in furniture, electronics, and children's products with creative designs and inherently fire-resistant materials. "Our findings demonstrate the importance of dealing with these chemicals as a class rather than individually," said Veena Singla at the University of California, San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. "While policies are heading in that direction, we can act now to reduce unnecessary use to protect human and environmental health."

"It's disheartening that after years of health harm to our children from PBDE flame retardants, the most widely used replacements appear to be just as bad," said Dr. Arlene Blum, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "To protect future generations, manufacturers can and must stop the cycle of toxic substitutions and avoid unneeded flame retardants altogether."
-end-
Paper Title: "Organophosphate Ester Flame Retardants: Are They a Regrettable Substitute for Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers?"

Authors: Arlene Blum (Green Science Policy Institute, UC Berkeley), Mamta Behl (NIEHS), Linda Birnbaum (NIEHS), Miriam L. Diamond (University of Toronto), Allison Phillips (Arcadis), Veena Singla (UCSF), Nisha S. Sipes (NIEHS), Heather M. Stapleton (Duke), and Marta Venier (Indiana University)

For a manuscript, email newsroom@acs.org.

For a short introduction to the science and policy of flame retardants:

https://www.sixclasses.org/videos/flame-retardants

For more information on organophosphates:

CDC FAQ on Organophosphates
Cornell Factsheet on Organophosphate Neurotoxicity

The Green Science Policy Institute provides unbiased scientific information to government, industry, and non-governmental organizations to facilitate more informed decision-making about chemicals used in consumer products in order to protect health and environment worldwide.

Contact:

Rebecca Fuoco, MPH, Green Science Policy Institute, (818) 688-2988, rebecca@greensciencepolicy.org
Marta Venier, PhD, Indiana University, (812) 855-1005, mvenier@indiana.edu
Linda Birnbaum, PhD, Retired, NIEHS, (919) 280-2884
Miriam Diamond, PhD, University of Toronto, (416) 978-1586, miriam.diamond@utoronto.ca
Veena Singla, PhD, University of California, San Francisco, (415) 476-3203, veena.singla@ucsf.edu

University of Toronto

Related Brain Development Articles from Brightsurf:

Stress in pregnancy may influence baby brain development
Infants' brains may be shaped by levels of stress their mother experiences during pregnancy, a brain scanning study has revealed.

DNA repair supports brain cognitive development
Researchers at Osaka University showed that the enzyme PolĪ² functions in genome maintenance by preventing double-stranded breaks in DNA during brain development in mice.

Children with asymptomatic brain bleeds as newborns show normal brain development at age 2
A study by UNC researchers finds that neurodevelopmental scores and gray matter volumes at age two years did not differ between children who had MRI-confirmed asymptomatic subdural hemorrhages when they were neonates, compared to children with no history of subdural hemorrhage.

Discovering the mechanism of brain vascular pathfinding during development
A research team led by Dr. DU Jiulin of the Institute of Neuroscience, Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology (CEBSIT), Chinese Academy of Sciences, has revealed that Ca2+ activities mediated by mechanosensitive Piezo1 channels regulate the pathfinding of growing brain vessels in larval zebrafish.

Antibiotics disrupt development of the 'social brain' in mice
Antibiotic treatment in early life impedes brain signalling pathways that function in social behaviour and pain regulation in mice, a new study by Dr Katerina Johnson and Dr Philip Burnet has found.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.

New method provides unique insight into the development of the human brain
Stem cell researchers at Lund University in Sweden have developed a new research model of the early embryonic brain.

Family environment affects adolescent brain development
Childhood environment and socioeconomic status affect cognitive ability and brain development during adolescence independently of genetic factors, researchers at Karolinska Institutet report in a new study published in the journal PNAS.

Lipid metabolism controls brain development
A lipid metabolism enzyme controls brain stem cell activity and lifelong brain development.

Probing the genes that organize early brain development
A new study finds how a specific gene can impact neurodevelopment and lead to macrocephaly and autism spectrum disorder in animal and lab models.

Read More: Brain Development News and Brain Development Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.