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Commonly used flame retardants increase diabetes risk, study finds

These chemicals are designed for protective purposes, but they could be health hazards

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Exposure to flame retardants can have long-term consequences for all consumers since they can live in the body for a long time. Now, researchers from the University of California at Riverside have found that these chemicals  -- which are also known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) -- contribute to higher risk of diabetes.

“PBDEs are everywhere in the home,” said researcher Dr. Margarita Curras-Collazo. “They’re impossible to completely avoid.”

“Even though the most harmful PBDEs have been banned from production and import into the U.S., inadequate recycling of products that contain them has continued to leach PBDEs into water, soil, and air. As a result, researchers continue to find them in human blood, fat, fetal tissues, as well as maternal breast milk in countries worldwide,” she said. 

Understanding diabetes risk

The researchers conducted their study on mice to determine what effect exposure to PBDEs could have on diabetes risk. Mice were exposed to the chemicals in volumes that mimicked human exposure during both pregnancy and breastfeeding, and then the researchers analyzed health outcomes for both the test subjects and their offspring.

Ultimately, the researchers learned that the offspring were at a greater risk of developing diabetes than their mothers. While the mothers showed a mild intolerance to glucose, the offspring showed several symptoms associated with diabetes, including insulin sensitivity, low blood insulin, and high fasting glucose. 

“Our findings indicate that chemicals in the environment, like PBDEs, can be transferred from mother to offspring, and exposure to them during the early developmental period is damaging to health,” Dr. Curras-Collazo said. 

In observing the mice’s reaction to PBDE exposure, the researchers worry about how human mothers and their infants are affected by similar chemical exposure. Though this study showed the close link between mothers passing chemical exposure down to their infants, the researchers recommend that consumers take steps to be more proactive about not bringing PBDEs into their homes.

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