Can Fire Retardants Raise Risk of Children Born With Lower IQs?

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WEDNESDAY, May 28, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- A new study bolsters the concerns of some scientists that hazardous levels of fire retardants in furniture and other products may harm children before they are born.

A team of researchers from the University of Cincinnati, Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the chemicals in the retardants may penetrate the bodies of pregnant women. This may boost the risk that their children will be hyperactive and have lower IQs.

The findings don't definitively prove that fire retardants cause these problems; it's possible that other factors could be responsible for lower IQ levels and higher rates of hyperactivity. And even if there is an effect, it is small on an individual basis.

Still, the study suggests that fire retardant chemicals might disrupt the normal ways in which children develop.

"The paper is upsetting," said Steven Gilbert, director and founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology & Neurological Disorders, who was not involved with the research. "I am really tired of our kids being needlessly exposed to harmful chemicals while we do little to correct the root causes."

At issue are chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which are used as fire retardants in furniture, drapes, car seats, TVs and other products. The chemicals, which slow the progress of fire, make their way into people's bodies and even into wildlife through dust and soil.

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks the chemicals in the ocean, this kind of fire retardant mostly vanished from the U.S. market about a decade ago amid concerns that they were toxic. The chemicals can still be found in new TVs and in older couches and other furniture.

In the new study, researchers tested 309 pregnant women in Cincinnati from 2003-06 for levels of the chemicals in their bodies. Then they tracked the women's children to see how they fared on various tests and adjusted their statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off by large or small numbers of women who fit into various types of categories such as rich or poor.

The level of fire-retardant chemicals in the women's bodies didn't appear to affect the way the kids developed physically and mentally from ages 1 to 3. But at the age of 5, children of mothers with the highest level of chemicals in their bodies were more likely to have lower IQs (by 5 points) and to be more hyperactive than other kids.

Does this matter? In the big picture, "a 5-point reduction in the average IQ of U.S. children would result in a 57 percent increase in children who have an IQ lower than 70 points," said study co-author Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Those children, he noted, would be considered mentally disabled.

"There would also be a corresponding decrease in the number of children who would be 'gifted,' " with an IQ above 130 points, Lanphear added.

Dr. Maida Galvez, an associate professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, advises consumers to look for new furniture that includes the label "TB 117-2013," which means it meets new standards set by California regarding fire safety in products.

As for existing furniture and other products, it's possible to send samples to labs for testing to see if they contain fire retardants. A 2012 study found questionable fire retardant chemicals in 85 percent of 102 couches tested.

Alternatively, "there are simple steps every family can take to reduce exposures to flame retardant chemicals in the home," Galvez said. "This includes wet mopping and wet dusting, ventilating the home and frequent hand washing with basic soap and water. These simple steps can reduce exposure to dust that may contain flame-retardant chemicals."

Future research should focus on the effects of flame-retardant exposure on adults and children, said study lead author Dr. Aimin Chen, an assistant professor in the department of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

The study appears in the May 28 issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

More information

For more about avoiding chemical hazards while pregnant, try the March of Dimes.