Flame retardants used in common household items could be lowering your child's IQ

The new generation of flame retardants - used in household and electronic items such as carpets, sofas, television and mobile phones in the US - have been found to be as toxic as the ones they replaced.


                            Flame retardants used in common household items could be lowering your child's IQ

Meant to slow down and prevent fires, the new generation of flame retardants - used in household and electronic items such as carpets, sofas, television and mobile phones in the US - have been found to be as toxic as the ones they replaced. The new ones - organophosphate ester flame retardants (OEFRs) - are not only known for causing reproductive and a host of other serious health problems, but also lower IQ and brain development in children, warn experts.

As mothers transfer organophosphate flame retardants to their babies, they end up having the same amount of chemicals as their mothers, immediately after birth. Further exposure can make them more vulnerable. Children can have three to ten times the flame retardant levels of adults, or even more, the scientists say.

"It's disheartening that after years of health harm to our children from polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) flame retardants, the most widely used replacements appear to be just as bad," said Dr. Arlene Blum, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute and the author of the study.

Adults and children unwittingly expose themselves to OEFRs. These chemicals constantly leach out of products and mix with dust, which then settles on the hands of children. And when they eat, the children end up consuming the flame retardants. Scientists find that the levels of organophosphate flame retardants are often 10 to 100 times higher in air, dust, and water than the previous flame retardants.

These chemicals are found  in household and electronic items such as carpets, sofas, television and mobile phones (Getty Images)

Several studies in the past have investigated the ugly side of the flame retardants. Building on the available information in the nearly 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers, these scientists compared the impacts of the older PBDEs with newer organophosphates, on health and environment.

They found that the replacement chemicals were being carried by wind and water far from their places of origin - ocean depths, icy mountain tops, and Earth's poles. "Organophosphates are now found worldwide, polluting areas where flame retardants were never used," according to Professor Miriam Diamond from the University of Toronto.

These chemicals are extremely pervasive, to the extent that they were found in every person studied. Several were found at levels high enough to threaten fertility in adults and healthy brain development in children, says the study.

The scientists found another issue with the replacement chemicals. The organophosphate flame retardants defeat its very purpose of slowing down fires: they often delay ignition only by a few seconds, and make fires more dangerous.

Scientists believe that things can change for the better if the industry and policymakers pay heed.

"Unfortunately the US policy has an 'innocent until proven guilty' approach to chemicals. Chemicals are allowed to be used without comprehensive health data, and it is only often after widespread use and exposures that we learn about the hazards," Veena Singla, Associate Director of Science & Policy at the University of California San Francisco, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

However, Singla points out that the policy makers have taken note of the issue. "A category or class approach to chemicals, rather than one-by-one or individually, would be a better approach to avoid hazardous chemicals. Some states have already taken such an approach, banning flame retardants from children’s products and furniture, for example. While policies are starting to address these harmful chemicals, industry can invest in research and design for products that avoid the need to use flame retardant chemicals all together, breaking the cycle of toxic substitutes," she told MEAWW.

The study was published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

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