S. L. Baker
Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010
So many US women have difficulty becoming pregnant that the fertility industry has become a huge business, raking in between three and five billion dollars a year. Now a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives raises the possibility that a lot of women who can’t have babies could have flame retardant chemicals to blame — specifically, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are commonly found in an alarming number of household consumer products.
In a study involving over 200 women, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) discovered that women with higher blood concentrations of PBDEs took far longer to become pregnant than those with low amounts of the chemicals in their blood. In fact, for every ten-fold increase in blood levels of four PBDE chemicals tested, there was a 30 percent decrease in the odds a woman would conceive a child during a month.
“There have been numerous animal studies that have found a range of health effects from exposure to PBDEs, but very little research has been done in humans. This latest paper is the first to address the impact on human fertility, and the results are surprisingly strong. These findings need to be replicated, but they have important implications for regulators,” the study’s lead author, Kim Harley, said in a statement to the media. Harley is an adjunct assistant professor of maternal and child health and associate director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health Research at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
PBDEs are a class of organobromine compounds found in foam furniture, electronics, fabrics, carpets, plastics and other common household items. They were commonly added to these and other products as flame retardants after the 1970s when new fire safety standards were implemented in the US.
So how big is the problem of homes contaminated by PBDEs? Unfortunately, it appears to be huge. The chemicals are known to leach out into the environment and accumulate in human fat cells. Previous studies have suggested that 97 percent of U.S. residents have detectable levels of PBDEs in their blood and that the levels in Americans are 20 times higher than in their counterparts in Europe.
The most prevalent form of PBDEs found in the blood of women participating in the UC Berkeley study were from a specific formulation known as a pentaBDE mixture. Both this kind of PBDE and another type, octaBDE, have been banned for use in several states — but they are still widely found in products manufactured before 2004.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally got around to addressing the danger of PBDEs at the end of 2009. Did the agency issue an urgent alarm about products containing the chemicals — even ban them outright to protect consumers? No. Instead, the EPA quietly announced an agreement with three major manufacturers of some forms of PBDEs to phase out production by 2013. Unfortunately, this is clearly too little too late to protect countless Americans from the potential danger of these contaminants.
“Although several types of PBDEs are being phased out in the United States, our exposure to the flame retardants is likely to continue for many years,” said the study’s principal investigator, Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health at the School of Public Health. “PBDEs are present in many consumer products, and we know they leach out into our homes. In our research, we have found that low-income children in California are exposed to very high levels of PBDEs, and this has us concerned about the next generation of Californians.”
What’s more, the scientists pointed out in the press statement that there’s reason to be concerned about additional chemical contaminants in the immediate future. True, PBDEs are being phased out from consumer products — but they are being replaced with other potentially toxic compounds. “We know even less about the newer flame retardant chemicals that are coming out,” said Dr. Harley. “We just don’t have the human studies yet to show that they are safe.”
This article was posted: Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 5:14 am