Flame retardants have been used in a host of consumer products for decades, but in recent years they have been suspected of contributing to health issues. Some are being phased out after being shown to be endocrine disruptors, substances that can impair hormone-controlled functions.
Research presented at the Endocrine Society’s 98th annual meeting in Boston singles out brominated fire retardants, used in many consumer products and known to cause hormonal irregularities, as especially problematic. Scientists say the chemicals overstimulate an adrenal gland hormone and can speed development of cardiovascular disease.
Flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), are often used in furniture foam cushions, clothes, building materials and electronics. Material treated with these chemicals burn more slowly, or don't ignite at all.
Federal regulators have phased out some flame retardants, in the face of scientific studies showing that they may affect brain development in infants and children.
There is still a problem, however, with existing products that contain these chemicals.
Phillip Kopf, an assistant professor at Midwestern University, says these chemicals can leach into the environment and accumulate.
“They have appeared in our environment, including house dust, the food supply and breast milk samples in the U.S.,” Kopf said in a release.
Water and salt balance
In this latest research, Kopf and his colleagues studied PBDE's effect on aldosterone, an important hormone. Aldosterone regulates the balance between water and salt in the body. It helps stabilize blood pressure by controlling kidney function.
In their study, investigators found that the PBDE traces were higher than expected in most humans that were tested. Accumulations were highest in adrenal glands.
In the cells that had the highest PBDE exposure, release of aldosterone was greatest. That's a problem because too much of that hormone then ends up in the bloodstream.
Kopf said too much aldosterone in the blood can lead to several health issues, including high blood pressure, blood clot formation, thickening of the heart muscle, and congestive heart failure.