CINCINNATI—In the face of increasing scientific evidence that chemical flame retardants used in everyday products are associated with serious behavioral and cognition problems, what’s a parent to do?
Given the ubiquitous nature of a group of these chemicals, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), the answer isn’t an easy one. But an expert from the University of Cincinnati (UC) Department of Environmental Health has studied the problem extensively and can offer valuable insight.
Aimin Chen, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of environmental health, was the lead author of a study presented recently at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C., showing that prenatal exposure to PBDEs is associated with hyperactivity and lower intelligence in early childhood.
"PBDEs are everywhere,” Chen says of the chemicals used in such products as baby strollers, carpeting and electronics. "In the United States, almost everyone has detectable levels of PBDEs in their serum.”
While some manufacturers have voluntarily phased out PBDEs in the past decade and additional phase-outs are scheduled this year and beyond, Chen says, the problem won’t simply go away. In the case of furniture, he notes, many articles containing PBDEs are handed down within families or bought on the secondhand market.
"These chemicals stay in the environment for long periods of time” he adds. "They get into the food chain, and babies get exposure from their mothers during pregnancy. Breast milk also contains PBDEs.
"In addition, children stay closer to the floor for a long time and are exposed to PBDEs through carpeting. They touch everything and put it into their mouths. So children have a higher level of exposure compared with adults.”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based nonprofit environmental health research and advocacy organization, offers these tips for avoiding PBDEs:
• Identify items in your house that are likely to contain PBDEs, such as TVs, cell phones, computers and other electronic products, and prevent young children from touching and especially mouthing them.
• Encourage frequent hand-washing.
• Inspect foam items. The EWG advises that you replace items with a ripped cover or foam that is misshapen and breaking down. Beware of older items such as car seats and mattress pads where the foam is not completely encased in a protective fabric.
• Use a vacuum fitted with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. These filters must meet strict U.S. government standards for removing small particles.
• Change your carpet, if it’s an old one. Remove the old carpet with care, as the padding may contain PBDEs. Clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and mop to pick up as many small particles as possible.
• Shop PBDE-free. Ask before you buy, the EWG advises, and choose PDBE-free products.
Chen and his colleagues at UC and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center are continuing to study PBDEs—particularly their effect on vulnerable populations. The research is supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Passport Foundation.
"Reducing exposure to PBDEs is a challenge, but even a few simple steps such as hand-washing and limiting young children’s exposure can be helpful,” he says.