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Flame Retardants in Our Bodies: Prenatal Exposure to PBDEs and Brain Damage

A longitudinal cohort study of more than 150 U.S. children conducted over 7 years associates prenatal exposure to higher concentrations of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants with lower scores on tests of neurodevelopment [EHP  118:712-719; Herbstman et al.]. This is the second recent epidemiologic study to link PBDEs with evidence of adverse effects on brain development, although differences in methodology between this and the other study [EHP  117:1953-1958; Roze et al.] make direct comparisons difficult.

PBDE flame retardants have been used for decades in a wide variety of goods, including automobile and airplane components, electronics, and home and office furnishings. The toxicologic evidence linking PBDEs to adverse health effects led the European Union to use the precautionary principle as the basis for banning all three PBDE formulations (penta, octa, and deca). In the United States, manufacturers voluntarily discontinued the penta and octa formulations in 2004 and have agreed to phase out deca by the end of 2012.

The mothers of the children in the current study were pregnant at the time of the World Trade Center (WTC) attacks in 2001 and gave birth at a hospital within 2 miles of the WTC site. The women were recruited for a study on the effects of exposure to compounds in dust from the decimated towers. PBDEs were measured in the cord blood of 210 infants, and 152 of these children later participated in at least one round of neurodevelopmental testing conducted at 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 years of age.

The children with higher levels of exposures consistently had, on average, lower developmental scores at each time point compared with less-exposed children; the association was particularly evident at age 4 years. The researchers were not able to evaluate associations with developmental delay because few children had developmental scores low enough to meet the criterion for this outcome. However, in many cases average test scores in children with exposures in the highest 20% were 5-11 points lower than average scores for less-exposed children.