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Environmental Factor, April 2012

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Fire retardant study named paper of the year by ES&T

By Eddy Ball

Heather Stapleton, Ph.D.

In addition to this year’s win, Stapleton also authored the ES&T top paper of 2005. (Photo courtesy of Duke University)

An NIEHS-funded study by grantee Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., was selected as top science paper of 2011 by the journal Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T). Published by ES&T May 18, 2011, the paper examined levels of flame retardant chemicals in infant and toddler products. It attracted immediate attention from the media, including a feature on the CBS Evening News and coverage by the New York Times and others. 

According to Kellyn Betts, who wrote an article about Stapelton’s winning paper for ES&T, the study prompted California to amend its fire retardant statute to exempt some children’s products, a potentially important step in reducing exposures nationwide. Stapleton’s mentor and longtime colleague, NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., described the paper as groundbreaking.

The study, “Identification of Flame Retardants in Polyurethane Foam Collected from Baby Products,” found that infant products contain high levels of several flame retardant chemicals, which are suspected to have potential to disrupt thyroid hormone signaling important in normal development (see story). Stapleton and her colleagues tested levels in polyurethane foam in car seats, changing tables pads, mattresses, and other infant and toddler products, and found retardants in 80 of 101 products tested at levels as high as 12 percent by weight of foam.

“This paper was a real wake up call,” Birnbaum said. "Some of these chemicals are very persistent in the environment and may have the potential to cause a variety of adverse health effects."

Stapleton, who is an assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University, received an NIEHS Outstanding New Environmental Scientist award in 2008 (see story), providing early career support for setting up her lab. She holds two grants from NIEHS — "Children’s exposure to flame retardants: Effects on thyroid hormone regulation" and “Deiodinase activity as a biomarker of response to brominated flame retardants.”


Betts K. 2012. Fire Retardants Abound in Baby Products: ES&T’s Top Science Paper 2011. Environ Sci Technol; doi:10.1021/es300730d [Online 5 March 2012].

Stapleton HM, Klosterhaus S, Keller A, Ferguson PL, van Bergen S, Cooper E, Webster TF, Blum A. 2011. Identification of flame retardants in polyurethane foam collected from baby products. Environ Sci Technol 45(12):5323-5331.

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