Californian children shown to have higher levels of fire-retardant chemicals

Photo: UC Berkeley professor Brenda Eskenazi shows some of her research, which recently showed that California children have higher levels of certain toxic chemicals than their Mexican counterparts do.
Rashad Sisemore/Staff
UC Berkeley professor Brenda Eskenazi shows some of her research, which recently showed that California children have higher levels of certain toxic chemicals than their Mexican counterparts do.

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Toxic Flame Retardants

Amruta Trivedi talks about a recent study published by UC Berkeley researchers that showed toxic flame retardants in the bloodstreams of Hispanic children in California to be higher than in the bloodstreams of children in Mexico.

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UC Berkeley researchers published a study that shows higher levels of toxic chemicals in the bloodstreams of Hispanic children in California than in those of their Mexican counterparts.

The study, published April 15 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, shows the levels of toxic chemicals in Hispanic children to be seven times higher than in children in Mexico - a consequence of the state's fire protection standards - conditions which have been proven to result in altered thyroid levels, impairments in fertility and neurological damage.

The research is part of an ongoing project to examine the effect that exposure to pesticides has on children and mothers in a farm-working community in Salinas, Calif.

According to principal investigator Brenda Eskenazi, a UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health, the group measured levels of polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants in the blood of pregnant mothers in 2000 and followed up in 2007 by measuring the levels in the blood of the 283 children, now 7 years old.

Eskenazi and her group compared the measurements in the Mexican-American children with blood samples taken over several months from 264 5-year-old Mexican children, finding a 70 to 100 percent detection level in the American children, while only a 13 to 20 percent detection level in the blood of their Mexican counterparts.

This difference, said Nina Holland, an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health and a principal investigator in the study, is likely due to children inhaling these chemicals from upholstered furniture and the floor.

Flame retardant chemicals are found in the foam of most upholstered furniture as a result of California's flammability standard, which requires more flame-fighting chemicals to be packed into foam in California than in other states.

Two types of flame retardant chemicals that were studied, penta-PBDE and octa-PBDE, were banned by the state in 2006, but according to Sarah Janssen, a senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, deca-PBDE - a type that is not yet illegal - breaks down into penta-PBDE and octa-PBDE, chemicals that have been shown to adversely affect fertility in both men and women.

"Moreover, these chemicals are not broken down very easily," Janssen said. "They may last for over 10 years inside the body."

Eskenazi said the group plans to follow the Hispanic children whose blood they drew in 2007 for the next few years in order to further monitor and determine the long-term effects of the chemicals.

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has introduced a bill to the state Legislature calling for alternative flammability codes that use fewer chemicals but still ensure safety. The bill is backed by the National Resources Defense Council and other health and environmental safety groups. The first hearing for the bill is scheduled for April 25.

If adopted, the bill would not replace the current standard but would provide a safer fire code, said Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar in the UC Berkeley chemistry department.

A 2010 study performed by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley concluded that brominated flame retardants, like those studied by Eskenazi's team, have not been proven to improve fire safety.

"This technical bulletin standard has never been shown to prevent fire dust," Janssen said. "Levels of fire dust have come down in California but have in other states as well. It is mostly due to improved building codes, adding sprinklers and smoke detectors to buildings, a decreased smoking rate and the introduction of self-extinguishing cigarettes."


Contact Amruta Trivedi at [email protected]

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