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California's Poor, Mexican American Kids Have Among World's Highest Levels of Flame Retardants

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Mexican American school children in California's Salinas Valley are contaminated with seven times more flame retardants than children in Mexico and three times more than their own mothers, according to a new scientific study.

The 7-year-olds in the low-income farm community had more of the chemicals in their bodies than almost all other people tested worldwide. Household dust, contaminated with flame retardants released by old furniture, is likely the major source of their exposure.

"The levels in young children noted in this study present a major public health challenge," wrote the researchers, directed by University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health epidemiologist Brenda Eskenazi. "While this challenge is particularly pronounced in California children, it is also relevant to other regions in the U.S." because the flame retardants are used in furniture and other items sold nationwide.

Health effects of the chemicals are largely unknown, but two studies have linked them to worse fine-motor skills and attention in children, and declines in fertility.

The findings suggest that low income, rather than race or ethnicity, is probably the major factor in determining who is highly exposed to brominated flame retardants. Poorly manufactured or deteriorating furniture may release more of the compounds, which are added to polyurethane cushions to slow the spread of flames when furniture catches fire.

The only people who have been found with higher levels in their bodies were Nicaraguan children living or working on hazardous waste sites, according to the study, which was published online last week in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Arnold Schecter, a University of Texas School of Public Health researcher, was surprised by the high levels of contamination in the California children.