Toxic Flame Retardants: Why Does Kids’ Exposure Vary by Race and Socioeconomics?

A new study finds that despite equal levels of chemicals in their homes, nonwhite toddlers had more exposure to flame retardant toxins than their white peers.

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A new study from Duke University reports that kids’ exposure to potentially toxic flame retardant chemicals may vary by race and socioeconomic background. The study found that nonwhite toddlers had a higher chemical load than white children, as did kids whose fathers did not have a college degree.

Heather Stapleton, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and her colleagues looked at the flame retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which have been widely added over the last 30 years to consumer products, including carpeting, furniture and electronics.

The long-lasting chemicals reduce the risk of household fires, but research shows they have some nasty side effects: exposure to PBDEs can disrupt endocrine activity and hinder thyroid regulation. Early exposure has been linked to low birth weight, lower IQ and impaired motor and behavioral development. Which is why in 2005, two commercial formulations of the chemicals, pentaBDE and octaBDE, were phased out over concerns about their durability and toxicity. In 2013, decaBDE will also begin a voluntary phase-out.

(MORE: Baby Products Contain Toxic or Untested Chemicals. Are They a Danger?)

But household exposure to the chemicals persists — they’re still present in older furniture (as products break down, they release PDBEs into the air), house dust, food and other sources. To test exposure in their sample of 83 toddlers ages 12 to 36 months, the Duke researchers looked at three main ways kids come into contact with the chemicals: ingestion of food or dust particles, breathing chemicals in the air and through mother’s milk. The team collected blood samples, hand-wipe samples and house-dust samples for each child.

PBDE contaminants were detected in all of the blood and house-dust samples and 98% of the hand-wipe samples. Older toddlers had higher total body burdens of the contaminants, with average levels increasing by an estimated 60% to 70% for each year of age.

“Our study highlights the fact that young children are very likely receiving the highest exposure to these chemicals among all age classes,” says Stapleton. “This is significant because young children are still developing and may be more sensitive to health effects from this exposure compared to adults.”

Breast-feeding duration was also associated with exposure. The study found that levels of one long-lasting PBDE component in children’s blood samples were associated with the amount of time a mother spent breast-feeding. “This could be coming from PBDE exposures the mother had up to two-and-a-half years ago,” Stapleton said in a statement.

(MORE: Why Pregnant Women in California Have High Levels of Toxic Chemicals)

Curiously, the study also found that nonwhite toddlers had nearly double the chemical load in their blood (60 parts per billion) compared with white toddlers (32 parts per billion); the authors note that race and socioeconomic status were closely tied in their study sample. However, there were no significant differences in PBDE concentrations in house dust samples by race or by parental education. That suggests the exposure difference in white and nonwhite children can’t be explained by higher levels of PBDE in lower socioeconomic homes.

“It is unclear at this time why levels are higher in the nonwhite toddlers. It may be due to behavioral differences — contact with different treated products in the home, dietary differences or to differences in hand-washing, which may reduce exposure,” says Stapleton. “We really need to determine why exposures are higher in minority and lower educational families.”

(MORE: The Perils of Plastics)

Flame retardants are catching some heat in the press as of late. The Chicago Tribune recently published an investigative series called “Playing With Fire,” which reported that the use of toxic flame retardants in furniture traces back to tobacco companies: decades ago, tobacco companies were tasked with creating fire-safe cigarettes in response to the growing number of house fires; rather than changing their own product, the Tribune reports, cigarette makers campaigned for flame-retardant furniture by wooing state fire marshals.

Tribune reporters Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe write:

So Big Tobacco launched an aggressive and cunning campaign to “neutralize” firefighting organizations and persuade these far more trusted groups to adopt tobacco’s cause as their own. The industry poured millions of dollars into the effort, doling out grants to fire groups and hiring consultants to court them.

“Right now, it’s hard to determine what flame-retardant chemicals are in most products due to confidential business information that protects the companies’ proprietary rights,” Stapleton said in the study statement. “Hopefully, this study’s findings will inform policymakers that we need better public access to this information.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof also advocates for stricter regulation of endocrine disruptors — like flame retardants. In Saturday’s column, he wrote:

This campaign season, you’ll hear fervent denunciations of “burdensome government regulation.” When you do, think of the other side of the story: your home is filled with toxic flame retardants that serve no higher purpose than enriching three companies. The lesson is that we need not only safer couches but also a political system less distorted by toxic money.

(MORE: Study: BPA May Be Linked with Heart Disease)

Stapleton says the next step for her research is to follow children to determine whether these elevated exposures during infancy and through the toddler years contribute to increased risk to health problems such as obesity, diabetes and neurodevelopmental problems.

Researchers are also interested in evaluating exposures to new flame retardants that have replaced the use of PBDEs in furniture. “It’s quite likely that toddlers are receiving higher exposure to the new flame retardants compared to adults as well,” says Stapleton.

In the meantime, parents can protect kids by enforcing frequent hand-washing and attempting to educate themselves on the types of flame retardants in their homes. The authors note that even though many chemicals are phased out, they’re still a present risk. “The type of PBDE we tracked in our study was from the pentaBDE mixture, which has, officially at least, been off the market for more than seven years,” said Stapleton in the statement.

The study is published in in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

MORE: Study Finds Spike in BPA from Eating Canned Foods

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