Polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) are a class of long-lasting and nasty flame retardant chemicals. This month, new research emerged that suggests pregnant women who live with PBDE-containing furniture may have higher blood levels of the chemicals in their system than women living with fewer pieces of PBDE-containing furniture. According to American Chemical Society C&EN, “People in the U.S. have 20 times higher blood levels of PBDEs than people in Europe,” and a lot of research points to flame retardants on furniture as the culprit. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that PBDEs are commonly used in furniture foam, plastics for TV cabinets, consumer electronics, wire insulation, baby car seats, back coatings for draperies and upholstery, and plastics for personal computers and small appliances. So, PBDEs are everywhere, which is bad news for pregnant women because they’re linked to multiple health issues in both adults and babies.
What’s so bad about PBDEs?
Obviously, flame retardants serve a purpose. PBDEs can absolutely slow ignition and rate of fire growth, and thus increase your chances of escaping your home if say, furniture catches on fire. On the flip side though, PBDEs are associated with issues like liver toxicity, reduced birth weight of babies, thyroid toxicity, neurodevelopmental toxicity, possibly cancer and more. The fact that PBDEs mess with thyroid-hormone regulation is particularly alarming because disrupted thyroid-hormone regulation has been linked to permanent behavior problems and brain damage. Plus growing evidence from the EPA and other organizations and researchers shows that PBDEs persist in the environment and accumulate in animals, plants and people. Environmental monitoring programs have found PBDEs in birds, fish, shellfish, amphibians, marine mammals, sewage sludge, sediments, air samples, meats, dairy products and vegetables in Japan and numerous U.S. and European locations.
What’s worse though is that PBDEs have been found in human blood, fatty tissue, umbilical cord blood and breast milk in every single region where scientists have conducted PBDE studies. What this means is that it’s extremely tough to avoid PBDEs, although you can limit your exposure.
How can you limit your exposure to PBDEs?
The United States has taken little action to ban all PBDEs. The U.S. EPA does have a PBDE Action Plan, which is meant to, “Manage concerns for PBDEs in products,” but currently, non-use of flame retardants is more voluntary than anything else. Environmental Working Group (EWG) notes that most new foam furniture items don’t likely contain PBDEs, so purchasing new furniture (made after 2005) vs. used is one good way to avoid PBDEs. EWG offers other tips to limit exposure to PBDEs as well, such as:
- Replace any foam furniture items that are ripped, misshapen or breaking down. If you’re unable to replace the item, keep it entirely encased in a protective cover.
- Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter to help reduce particle-bound contaminants in your house.
- Do not reupholster foam furniture.
- When buying new furniture or a mattress, ask the manufacturers what type of fire retardants they use. For example, IKEA, Sealy, Serta, Simmons, and Spring Air have voluntarily stopped making products that contain PBDEs.
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