Preventing house fires is important, especially in families with children – but there is growing evidence that flame retardant materials used broadly in furniture, electronics, and even toys, may create a new health threat.
Research has shown that many of the chemicals used as flame retardants persist in the environment and accumulate in people. While the health effects from flame retardants are not clear, data from toxicological studies show that some of the chemicals used as flame retardants may affect brain development – a conclusion that has led to the ban of many of these chemicals in the European Union. But in the United States, the federal standards have focused on fire safety, not necessarily the chemicals that are used as flame retardants.
The lack of regulation may relate to the dearth of applied research. While many experts agree that some of the chemicals used in flame retardants are toxic, few studies have focused on the risk of exposure to common household items, from furniture to rugs. Now a team of researchers at Oregon State University is hoping to fill some of those gaps.
“We know from animal studies that some flame retardants can have a neurotoxic effect, so brain development and cognition are at risk,” said Molly Kile, an OSU public health environmental epidemiologist who will lead a team of researchers to find answers.
“Given the fact that the numbers of children with neurological and cognitive disabilities is on the rise in the developing world, many have hypothesized that that exposure to chemicals may be a contributing factor,” Kile said. “In order to start designing studies that can examine this hypothesis, it is necessary to understand how children are being exposed to chemicals like flame retardants. For instance, why do some households have higher exposures and how are children coming into contact with these chemicals?”
Other OSU researchers on this team are focusing on potential for social factors to affect children’s ability to control their behavior, as well as other neurological and cognitive factors that can impact motor skills, attention deficit, and other aspects of school readiness.
Perhaps most importantly to parents, the researchers will examine different ways to reduce the effects of these chemical exposures on children’s health. This is a particularly critical aspect of this study since previous research has shown that 97 percent of Americans have one of the key flame retardant chemicals, known as polybromintaed diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, in their blood. And young children have been shown to have almost three times the levels of PBDEs in their blood as their mothers.
“We want to explore if a supportive home environment, with lots of active play, positive parenting, and educational activities, can help dampen the effects of these chemicals on children’s development,” said Shannon Lipscomb, an assistant professor at OSU-Cascades who is conducting surveys with the parents of the children in the study.
“There are large gaps in school readiness, despite most children having some amount of exposure to these chemicals. So we suspect that parents can help to protect children from some of the potentially harmful effects.”
This interdisciplinary group of OSU researchers is working under a grant from the university’s Environmental Health Sciences Center that will monitor 100 preschool age children in Corvallis and Bend during the next year.
Their methodology is as fascinating as the study is important. Over the next year, OSU researchers will visit the families of the 100 preschool children in their homes. The children will wear bracelets designed by OSU’s Kim Anderson that can monitor the amount of chemicals they are exposed to each day.
Anderson, a professor in the Department of Environmental & Molecular Toxicology at OSU, developed the silicone-based passive sampling device. It is fashioned as a plastic bracelet which can either be worn on the child’s wrist or ankle. After being worn for one week, Anderson and Kile will analyze the data, using a statistical model developed by Bo Zhang, a new faculty member and biostatistician in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.
The researchers will also vacuum household dust in the areas where the children most often play to collect direct chemical data from the household. All participants of the study receive a free chemical analysis of their home, along with gift certificates to local businesses.
Both undergraduate and graduate students at OSU are heavily involved in this study. For instance, Andrea Gomez, a senior in human development and family sciences, is the project coordinator of the Corvallis site. Gomez has done research with Megan McClelland, an associate professor at OSU and one of the core directors of OSU’s Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families.
Kate Nordquist, a recent graduate in human development and family sciences and current master’s student at OSU-Cascades in elementary teaching, is the project coordinator of the Bend site, working with Lipscomb and her team of students. Jennifer Pryzbyla, a doctoral student in the Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety program, is also involved. With the help of other students, they are leading the efforts to collect the samples from the participants’ homes and assess children’s development.
“For me, being involved in research at OSU has given me a deeper understanding of children and families,” Gomez said. “It is a direct way to apply what is learned in the classroom.”
McClelland is also involved in the flame retardant study, conducting assessments of the participants’ ability to control their behavior, or “self-regulate.” Self-regulation has been found by McClelland to be a key predictor as to whether or not a child is ready for school, and uses a Simon Says-like task to assess these skills in children.
McClelland said this project, which combines the expertise of new junior faculty members with more seasoned faculty, is unusual for academia. She said it can be rare to find researchers from such different areas, such as analytical chemists, environmental epidemiologists and child development experts, working together
“Having this collaborative space available at the Hallie Ford Center has really been essential for this project,” McClelland said. “And it really fits with the mission of the center, to help children and families, along with the public health mission of our college.”
Megan MacDonald, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, is an expert on motor skills and developmental delays, such as autism. She is leading the group looking at cognitive functioning of the children.
MacDonald says that 1 in 88 children now have autism spectrum disorder, a rate that has risen far above the 2009 estimate of 1 in 110. Autism is the most common childhood neurodevelopmental disability, and identifying potential triggers for neurodevelopmental disabilities is more critical than ever.
“We’re trying to capture the fact that health, and things that can impact cognitive functioning in particular, are multi-factorial,” she said. “It’s never just one magic bullet.”
The researchers pointed out that while every child is exposed to the chemicals in flame retardants, some homes may have higher levels.
“Parents who can afford to buy all-natural wool mattresses for their child’s crib, for instance, may see a benefit,” McClelland said, adding that wool is naturally flame-repellant, and so does not usually have the same chemical profile. “But environmentally-friendly material is often much more expensive, and many parents simply can’t afford it.”
Kile said parents can’t be blamed when almost all materials are embedded with these chemicals. But she said policy change could be a long time coming, so in the meantime, OSU researchers want to help families develop tools to help their child’s health.
“Chemicals are innocent until proven guilty in this country,” Kile said. “In Europe, for instance, manufacturers have to prove chemicals are not harmful before they put them in a product. Here, you have to prove it is harmful before you can remove it.”
Kile said these different philosophies frequently cause confusion for manufacturers and the public who hear different messages depending on the source of information.
Assessing preschool-age children is important because this is considered a key time for brain development. Experts say intervening early to help children with behavioral and socialization skills is crucial to their academic success.
“Children live in a plastic, foam-filled environment, and they are susceptible particularly at this critical time of 4 to 5 years-old,” Kile said. “What we want to do is capture a snapshot of what is happening just in 100 homes in two cities, and cast a wide net to see what these chemicals are doing.”