Flame retardants are more damaging to children’s developing brains than two of the most feared toxic chemicals: lead and mercury.
Known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PDBEs, flame retardants can be twice as bad for children’s IQs as lead, and almost 80 times worse than mercury. Exposure to pesticides can also take a measurable toll on a child’s IQ.
Unfortunately, these effects are not temporary. Once a child’s brain development is disrupted, “you can have permanent and lifelong consequences,” said Dr. Leo Trasande.
Dr. Trasande and a team of researchers at New York University studied kids who were exposed to mercury, lead, pesticides and PBDEs from 2001 to 2016. “What we found was quite striking,” Dr. Trasande noted, “We know that there is no safe level of lead exposure. The same is true for methylmercury, pesticides, and flame retardants.”
Dr. Trasande calls these chemicals “hit-and-run” because once a child is exposed to them; the damage they cause cannot be reversed.
Flame retardants have previously been shown to increase the risk of reading problems in young children who were exposed to them in utero. Flame retardants have also been linked to hyperactivity and ADHD in youngsters.
It is thought that PBDEs cause such serious problems because they disrupt the body’s endocrine system. Evidently, PBDEs resemble thyroid hormones, which drive growth and development, particularly brain development. Studies have shown that PBDEs decrease the level of thyroid hormones in animals. Other research reported on by the National Institutes of Health has found a connection between prenatal exposure to PBDEs and motor, cognitive, and behavioral development in infants and children.
Flame retardants can be found in contaminated dust that may come from carpet padding and foam-filled household furniture, like couches and cushioned chairs, as well as electronics, and even children’s car seats. Pajamas for kids’ age 9 months through size 14 must be flame resistant, or else fit so snugly that they’d be unlikely to catch fire if they got near an open flame.
5 Ways to Ditch Flame Retardants
- Minimize the chances of fire, especially in the room where children sleep. Install smoke detectors, and don’t allow children to light candles or burn incense in their rooms. (My son left incense burning in his room one evening and the whole room caught on fire!) If you have a fireplace or wood stove in your home, use protective grates and keep kids away from the flames. Likewise, don’t let children get close to a gas stove when the burners are ignited.
- Switch out pajamas with flame retardants in favor of untreated cotton t-shirts, cotton long underwear, and close-fitting shorts or sweat pants. The Washington Post reports that polyester is flame-resistant due to the nature of the fabric and how it is woven. The PJ label should say 100% polyester and “flame resistant.”
- Take out the foam padding from under carpeting. If it can’t be replaced, consider adding an area rug on top to reduce dust, and vacuum and dust frequently.
- Keep furniture with foam padding in good shape. Sew up holes, or replace if the furniture starts to shed foam.
- Check car seats. This report from the Ecology Center provides recommendations for safer alternatives to car seats without added flame retardants.