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Environmental Factor

July 2011

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NIEHS-funded study suggests high infant exposure to flame retardants

By Archana Dhasarathy
July 2011

Heather Stapleton, Ph.D.

Stapleton, a chemist at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, was the recipient of the prestigious 2008 NIEHS Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) award. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum has published several studies on flame retardants and is recognized as a leading authority in the field. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A new NIEHS-funded study by chemist Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., and her colleagues indicates that infants are being exposed to chemical flame retardants found in up to eighty percent of commonly used baby products, including car seats. According to Stapleton, these chemicals may be absorbed by infants through inhalation, ingestion or via their skin, and may pose significant health risks during childhood development.

Stapleton( Exit NIEHS is an assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University. She is an NIEHS Outstanding New Environmental Scientist awardee, and her study( Exit NIEHS was supported by a grant from NIEHS to investigate "Children's Exposure to Flame Retardants: Effects on Thyroid Hormone Regulation." (

From furniture to babies

Manufacturers add flame retardant chemicals to polyurethane foam in order to meet a California flammability standard (TB 117) adopted in 1975, which requires it to withstand a 12-second open flame. Furniture manufacturers in many states have adopted the use of flame retardants to comply with the California standard, even though no federal law requires the use of flame retardants.

A few years ago, Stapleton's team was testing some polyurethane foam collected from furniture items that contained a label indicating that they met the California foam flammability standard. When Stapleton was shopping for baby products for her first child, she was surprised to observe the same labels on a number of baby products. "After talking with a few of my colleagues about this, we decided to conduct a study to determine whether and how frequently these items were treated with flame retardants," she said.

Eighty percent of baby products contain flame retardants

In their study, the researchers examined 101 commonly used baby products, including car seats, baby changing pads, and nursing pillows, for the presence of these chemicals. Using mass spectrometry, they confirmed that nearly 80 of these samples contained either a chlorinated or brominated flame retardant additive.

During their analysis they found compounds commonly associated with pentabromodiphenyl ether (pentaBDE), which was banned in Europe and withdrawn from the US market, in five products, suggesting products with pentaBDE are still in use. In addition they found two potential carcinogens, TCEP and TDCPP, and identified two previously undocumented chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants, among others.

Health concerns during early infant development

When asked about the exposure and health concerns for infants, Stapleton said, "I don't think we know much at all about the potential human health effects from exposure to these chemicals. What we do know is that infants are likely receiving more exposure to these chemicals than adults. Therefore, more research is warranted to determine if this exposure is leading to any adverse health effects."

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. ( concurred. "Some of these chemicals are very persistent in the environment and thus have the potential to cause a variety of adverse health effects," she said. She also pointed out that there are ongoing studies at NIEHS and the NTP that aim to test both short- and long-term effects of a variety of flame retardants.

Avoiding products with flame retardants

Why do we need these chemicals at all, if the law does not require their use and they may be harmful? "Part of the reason to use these chemicals came from the old days, when people smoked a lot," said Birnbaum. Smoking has decreased in recent years, but these chemicals still continue to be used.

So how do parents avoid buying products with flame retardants? Unfortunately, they can't. "The consumer is unable to determine whether a product contains flame retardants or not, as labeling is not required. However, if a baby product contains polyurethane foam, AND a label indicating it meets CA TB 117, there is a very high probability that it will contain halogenated flame retardant chemicals," said Stapleton.

In the meantime, Stapleton urged parents with concerns about their children's exposure to these chemicals to write to legislators, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission ( Exit NIEHS, requesting more testing to determine the extent of exposure to these chemicals and to determine if there are any health effects.

(Archana Dhasarathy, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Eukaryotic Transcriptional Regulation Group in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis.)

Banned flame retardants resurface

Many flame retardants were used in the 1970s in a variety of children's products, such as child car seats, mattresses, and clothing to reduce deaths from fire. Some of these were subsequently banned due to health concerns. For instance, brominated tris (tris [2,3-dibromopropyl] phosphate] was banned from children's pajamas after it was found to be mutagenic and was shown to be absorbed into children's bodies.

The fire retardant pentabromodiphenyl ether (pentaBDE) can accumulate in humans, animals and the environment and has the potential to cause adverse health effects. In 2003, legislation banning the use of pentaBDE came into existence in the European Union and several states in the U.S.

In Stapleton's study, the researchers found several compounds, similar to those that were banned in pajamas, still present in the products they studied.

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