Chemicals designed to protect furniture, carpeting, and other consumer products from catching fire are now under fire for their possible link to fertility issues in women.
A study released today claims women with high levels of commonly used flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in their blood took longer to get pregnant than women with low levels of the chemicals.
Researchers at the School of Public Health, U.C. Berkeley, discovered women with the highest levels of PBDEs were twice as likely to take more than a year to conceive.
"This study provides the first evidence that PBDEs may impact fertility," writes the study's lead author, Dr. Kim Harley at U.C. Berkeley. "Women with higher PBDE levels were 30-50 percent less likely to conceive each month than those with lower levels."
Previous animal studies have found a possible link between prenatal PBDE exposure and hormonal and reproductive issues.
"In laboratory animals, PBDEs have been shown to mimic sex hormones and affect the balance of thyroid hormones, both of which could have implications for fertility," Harley told ConsumerAffairs.com today.
But today's study is the first to examine whether PBDEs are associated with changes in women's fertility, Harley said. "There is very little research on the health effects of PBDEs in humans."
"Exposure is nearly universal"
PBDEs are widely-used chemicals designed to reduce the flammability of foam furniture, electronics, carpet padding, and other consumer products. Researchers say these chemicals are not bound and can leach out of the products.
"They are commonly found in dust in our homes and cars," the study said.
Harley describes Americans' exposure to these chemicals in an even more personal way -- one she hopes will illustrate why the average consumer should care about these new findings.
"Scientists have shown that 97 percent of the US population has detectable levels of these chemicals in their blood," she said. "This (study) is relevant to the average person because exposure to these compounds is so common."
But the study will likely strike more of a chord with the estimated 2.1 million couples in the country dealing with infertility issues, Harley said.
"I think women trying to get pregnant will be the ones who mainly focus on our findings," she said. "The findings (if confirmed) would have strong implications to women trying to conceive given that exposure to PBDEs is nearly universal in the United Sates and many other countries."
During their research, Harley and her colleagues measured the PBDE levels in the 223 pregnant women participating in the study. They also interviewed the women about how many months it took them to become pregnant.
The women enrolled in the study were young, had low incomes, and predominantly came from Mexican descent, Harley said. Most of the women lived near an agriculture field in Northern California and almost half worked in the farming industry before they became pregnant.
"We've been working and following the women in this group for 10 years," Harley said. "At first we were interested in the effects of pesticides on the women's reproductive health and the development of their children. We were really pesticide researchers."
"Then we started looking at PBDEs," she added. "We measured PBDE levels in house dust in this area and in the mothers and children. We found fairly high levels of PBDEs, which has lead us to be concerned about two types of exposures in this population -- both pesticides and now PBDEs."
The women in the study had "fairly high" exposures to pesticides, Harley acknowledged. "But our findings were found independent of the women's work in agriculture or their exposure to pesticides."
Asked if the study's findings were conclusive, Harley said, "Human studies are observational. They have their limitations and this study needs to be replicated in a different population to find out if the association we found holds up in another population."
"You can't prove anything from one study," she added. "But they definitely can give you clues. And we found a strong and significant association (between PBDEs exposure and fertility issues.)"
Given those findings, is Harley ready to call for an all-out ban on these chemicals?
"Two (PBDEs) are already banned and one is now listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a chemical of concern," she said. "So the movement is already in the works. The use of these flame retardants is going down and there are new chemicals to replace them as fire retardants."
The EPA is ready to phase-out the last PBDE chemical (deca-BDE) by 2013, Harley said. And the agency has stopped the use of the other two PBDE chemicals, penta and octa-BDE.
But consumers' exposure to deca-BDE is still widespread, and will continue to be even after the 2013 phase-out deadline. "It's still in many products in our homes and exposure can continue from our sofas, TVs, chairs, and the backings on our curtains," Harley said.
"A critical role in fire safety"
ConsumerAffairs.com contacted the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade organization representing the leading companies in the chemical industry, for a comment about Dr. Harley's study. A spokeswoman did not respond to our inquiries.
The ACC, however, has previously defended the safety and use of PBDEs. In 2008, for example, the organization backed the use of these flame retardant chemicals in baby furniture.
The ACC at the time issued a statement that said, "The Consumer Product Safety Commission and U.S. National Academy of Sciences have concluded that deca-BDE, specifically known as decabromodiphenyl oxide, does not present a health risk to humans, under anticipated use scenarios, including babies and toddlers coming into contact with treated carpets and repeatedly sucking on treated upholstery textile."
The ACC also said the flame retardant chemicals protect consumers from harm.
"Fire-retardant materials and components play a critical role in fire safety," the ACC wrote. "Fabric and upholstery treated with flame retardants can help prevent fires from starting and can slow down the progress of fires already in progress. Fire retardants allow those critical moments--time for occupants to flee safely."
Back in California, Harley said she and her fellow researchers will continue to study the health effects of PBDE exposure in humans.
"We're going to follow the children of the pregnant women in our study," she said, adding those kids are now 8 and 9-years-old. "We're concerned about PBDE exposure and possible neurodevelopmental issues in these kids."
What you can do
In the meantime, consumers shouldn't feel helpless about their widespread exposure to these chemicals, Harley said. She recommended the following steps to reduce exposure to PBDEs:
• Use a wet mop or vacuum with a hepa filter to cut down on dust in homes. Hepa filters reportedly filter out particles that are invisible to the naked eye.
• Wash you hands frequently. PBDEs often stay on hands.
• Eat low-fat meats, fish, and dairy products. PBDEs settle in fat, Harley said.
• Buy feather or polyester filled pillows. Harley said a recent study found pillows filled with foam had higher levels of PBDEs than feather of polyester-filled ones.
Harley's study, "PBDE Concentrations in Women's Serum and Fecundability," is now published in the online journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Fireproofing Chemicals May Cause Fertility Issues...