By Sunny Lewis

CORVALLIS, Oregon, March 11, 2017 (ENS) – There is no doubt that flame retardant chemicals added to furniture, carpeting electronics and vehicles to halt or slow fires do save lives. But these chemicals also can affect the social development of young children, new research has found.

Health scientists from Oregon State University found a “significant relationship” between social behaviors among children and their exposure to widely used flame retardants, says Molly Kile, an environmental epidemiologist and associate professor in the Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

boys

Boys fighting (Photo by Aislinn Ritchie)

“When we analyzed behavior assessments and exposure levels, we observed that the children who had more exposure to certain types of the flame retardant were more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors such as aggression, defiance, hyperactivity, inattention and bullying,” said Kile, an author of the OSU study, published March 9 in the journal “Environmental Health.”

“This is an intriguing finding because no one had previously studied the behavioral effects of organophosphate classes of flame retardants, which have been added to consumer products more recently,” said Kile.

Manufacturers began adding flame retardants in 1975, in response to new legislation in California intended to reduce flammability in common household items.

California updated its flammability standards in 2014, and now allows furniture manufacturers to meet the standards without adding flame retardant chemicals to their products, but the chemicals are still widely used and they linger in the indoor environment.

The most common types of flame retardants found in homes and vehicles are brominated diphenyl ethers (BDEs) and organophosphate-based flame retardants (OPFRs).

The organophosphate-based flame retardants have emerged as an alternative to BDEs, which have been phased out in some states over the past five years as links have been discovered to environmental health concerns such as cancers, reproductive problems and lower IQs in children.

girls

Girls play on a damaged couch, San Francisco, California, Feb. 2010 (Photo by Lynn Friedman)

Both chemicals are still found in older furniture and foam items. Flame retardant chemicals may be present in plastic, textile and foam consumer products children may be exposed to such as nursing pillows, car seats, crib mattresses, baby carriers, strollers and changing pads.

The flame retardants are added to the products and are not bound in the materials, and this causes them to be released into indoor environments every day.

Past research has shown that both types of chemicals are linked to poorer cognitive function in children.

But less is known about the relationship between these flame retardants and children’s social and emotional health, particularly during early childhood, a key developmental period for learning.

“The social skills children learn during preschool set the foundation for their success in school, and also for their social and emotional health and well-being later in life,” said study co-author Shannon Lipscomb, an associate professor who leads the human development and family sciences program at OSU-Cascades.

For this study, the OSU research team recruited 92 Oregon children between ages three to five to wear a silicone wristband for seven days to measure their exposure to flame retardants.

The wristbands, developed by Kim Anderson of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences, have a porous surface that mimics a cell, absorbing chemicals that the wearers are exposed to through their environment.

When the wristbands are returned, Anderson can screen for up to 1,200 chemicals.

The researchers had parents or primary caregivers complete questionnaires giving facts such as age, gender, education level and the home environment, while preschool teachers completed behavior assessments for each participating child.

wristband

Rubber wristbands developed at Oregon State University absorb chemical compounds, including flame retardants. (Photo by Stephen Ward)

In all, researchers had complete data and wristband results for 69 children.

Results showed that all of the children were exposed to some level of flame retardant.

Children who had higher exposure rates to organophosphate-based flame retardants, or OFPRs, showed less responsible behavior and more aggression, defiance, hyperactivity, inattention and bullying behaviors.

Children with higher exposure to brominated diphenyl ethers, or BDEs, were seen as less assertive by their teachers.

“We detected these links between flame retardant and children’s social behaviors while controlling for differences in family demographics, home learning environments and adversity,” Lipscomb said.

“This suggests that flame retardants may have a unique effect on development apart from the effects of children’s early social experiences,” she said.

to better understand the links between flame retardants and children’s social skill development, the researchers said.

A more thorough investigation is needed, Kile said. The scientists plan to pursue funding for a new study covering a longer period of time that considers how other aspects of children’s lives might affect the impact of flame retardants on their development.

“If scientists find strong evidence that exposure to flame retardants affects children’s behaviors, we can develop strategies that prevent these exposures and help improve children’s lives,” said Kile.

“This type of public health science is needed to figure out how to address the root causes of behavioral concerns that can affect children’s school readiness and overall well-being,” she said.

Meanwhile, there are ways to minimize children’s exposure to flame retardants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that parents:

* – Wash their hands and their children’s hands often, especially before eating.
* – Dust frequently with a moist cloth.
* – Wet mop or vacuum with a HEPA filter attachment often.
* – Prevent small children from chewing on products that may contain these chemicals.
* – Repair tears in upholstered furniture.
* – Wipe and vacuum the interior of their car often as seats and dashboards contain flame retardant chemicals.

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