New Study Links Flame Retardants to Lower Birth Weight

A study published Tuesday, Aug. 30 by a group of researchers at UC-Berkeley has found that exposure to a group of flame retardants, PBDEs, is linked to lower birth weight in infants

I have written blogs before about the health concerns associated with exposure to PBDEs, including reduced fertility and impaired development. This new study adds to the growing list of harmful effects that have been associated with exposure to flame retardants.

When looking at the birth weights of over 250 infants, infants whose mothers were exposed to higher levels of PBDEs had lower birth weights. Though none of the infants were considered to be "low birth weight," a clinical term reserved for infants weighing less than 5.5 pounds (2,500 grams), each 10-fold increase in blood levels of PBDEs was associated with a 4-ounce (115-gram) decrease in birth weight. 

Four ounces might not sound like much, but it is similar to the decrease in birth weight seen with prenatal exposure to tobacco smoke. Low birth weight is a risk factor for health problems later in life, including developmental delays and cardiovascular disease.

The importance of this new study is that it has identified another potential contributor to low birth weight in a population of infants already at risk: those born to low-income populations with poor access to good nutrition and prenatal care. Previous studies have identified low-income populations as having higher exposures to PBDEs, the same flame retardants linked to low birth weight in this study.

The solution to this problem is smarter and more effective regulation of chemicals. PBDEs have been phased out of production, but exposures continue because these chemicals persist in the environment and people, especially those on a limited income, who tend to have older furniture that still contains these chemicals. The problem isn’t solved by buying a new couch or recliner, because the chemicals replacing PBDEs may be just as toxic.

Join us in calling for reform of the federal chemical policy laws that have allowed this problem to happen.  And in the meantime, here are a few tips on how to reduce your exposure to these and other toxic chemicals:

  • Vacuum often (with an HEPA filter) and wet-mop to reduce build-up of dust in your home.

  • Dust with a damp cloth or a microfiber cloth to avoid kicking up dust particles in the air as you work. For example, don’t use a feather duster, as this only releases dust particles into the air.
  • Wash hands frequently (with plain soap and water!), as hand-to-mouth contact with dust is a major pathway for exposure.
  • And if you live outside of California, buy furniture without the TB 117 label as shown below.