Do Flame Retardants Harm Unborn?

Flame retardants save countless lives every year. But the chemicals found in the substances can pose serious health risks.

The Saturday Early Show's Dr. Mallika Marshall explained the problem.

Flame retardants are in thousands of everyday products including furniture and electronics. They are called Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs). Medical experts say traces are turning up in the human body at an alarming rate.

"Whatever these chemicals are doing to your body, I can guarantee one thing: I know they are probably not good for you," said Dr. David Ozonoff of Boston University's School of Public Health.

PBDEs have long been linked to learning problems in children, including attention deficit disorder (ADD) and hyperactivity. New research now suggests that unborn children may also be at risk. It is why Sharon Koshar, who just had her second child, decided to have her blood tested.

"I really thought that everything was going to come out fine," Koshar said. "But I came to find out I have high levels of these flame retardants."

Koshar was not alone. Dr. Marshall had her own blood drawn and sent to a lab to see if her body contained the chemicals. Her results showed traces of contamination as well.

"As far as we know, there is no way to insulate ourselves from these chemicals and that shouldn't be," Ozonoff said.

Scientists believe that PBDEs are emitted from the products where they gradually accumulate in human fat cells. And in the case of pregnant women, these chemicals are then passed on to the fetus.

Marshall says there are no real labeling standards to tell if products in the home contain PBDEs. So it's hard to tell on your own if your furniture or electronics contains any of the chemicals. Marshall says if you are concerned, you can write the manufacturer.

PBDE-free products are available. Marshall says if you have a polyurethane foam mattress or futon, you can always switch it for one that has coil springs and naturally fire-resistant wool. Also, some stores are creating PBDE-free lines of furniture. Ikea, a big European furniture chain with many outlets in the U.S., is the most popular store creating PBDE-free furniture.

Marshall also suggests searching the Internet for smaller companies that offer these products, too.

Last year, the European Union imposed a ban on PBDEs and now California and Massachusetts are also taking steps to phase out the chemicals.

Fire safety officials are also sounding an alarm about PBDEs, but for a different reason. They worry that without the chemicals, many more people will be injured or die in fires. It's an issue not likely to be extinguished anytime soon.
  • Rome Neal

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