Flame retardants can alter thyroid hormones in pregnant women, new study shows
By Marla Cone
Editor in Chief
Environmental Health News
June 21, 2010
Updated at 2 p.m. EST June 21
High levels of brominated flame retardants can alter pregnant women’s thyroid hormones, which are critical to a baby’s growth and brain development, according to a California study published Monday.
The study is considered important because it is the first human research showing a link between the ubiquitous chemicals and altered levels of the hormones in pregnant women. The effects on babies are unknown, but some researchers say it may lead to smaller fetuses, and reduce childen's intelligence and motor skills.
“Normal maternal thyroid hormone levels are essential for normal fetal growth and brain development, so our findings could have significant public health implications,” said Jonathan Chevrier, a University of California, Berkeley epidemiologist and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
The flame-retarding chemicals, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are widely found in furniture cushions, carpet pads, electronics and other common household items. They have been detected in about 97 percent of people tested; in the United States, levels are at least 20 times higher than elsewhere.
The Berkeley epidemiologists tested the blood of 270 pregnant women in California’s Salinas Valley. The study is part of a larger project monitoring the health of pregnant women and children in the valley, which is predominantly a low-income, Mexican-American farm community.
The women’s thyroid-stimulating hormone, or TSH, declined 16.8 percent for every tenfold increase in PBDEs. Low TSH suggests that the thyroid is producing too much hormone on its own. The reductions were found for every type of PBDE tested.
The high exposures did not lead to clinical hyperthyroidism – a condition involving overproduction of thyroid hormones known to damage fetuses. But their rate of subclinical hyperthyroidism did increase. For every ten-fold increase of PBDEs among the women studied, their risk of subclinical hyperthyroidism doubled.
Scientists do not know whether the thyroid effects were significant enough to harm their fetuses.
Chevier said pregnant women who are clinically hyperthyroid have an increased risk of miscarriage, premature birth and reduced fetal growth. Also, in animal tests, hyperthyroidism in the mothers results in damaged brain development of their offspring. But it is unclear whether subclinical hyperthyroidism – the effect linked to the flame retardants – has any effect on fetuses.
Research is already in the works to try to address that.
UC Berkeley epidemiologist Brenda Eskenazi, the study’s principal researcher, said the team has tested the Salinas children for neurodevelopmental effects such as reduced mental skills, with results expected this summer. In addition, they plan to look for effects on fetal size and weight.
“The thyroid hormone findings we have seen could have an effect on fetal growth and we will be looking for that,” she said.
The director of the nation’s environmental health program said Monday that the new research raises many important questions about public health since it is uncertain what, if any, effect the thyroid changes have on the infants or their mothers.
“I think the change [in the women’s hormones] is probably real. It’s in agreement with other human studies in other [non-pregnant] adults and it’s the first study showing a pretty significant effect. Clearly it is something that should be looked at further," Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said in an interview with Environmental Health News.
“It may mean we need some more investigation of what the thyroid condition is of these women. Are they really on their way to being hyperthyroid?” she added.
Birnbaum said she is encouraging the Berkeley scientists to look at the thyroid levels of the infants, too.
“We need to understand what’s happening with the infants, not just the mom,” she said.
One perplexing discovery is that in the women, thyroid-stimulating hormones decreased as PBDEs increased, while in lab animals, the opposite has been found. And no one knows why.
“We need to understand why our animal models don’t agree with the human studies,” Birnbaum said. “I think this is not the result people expected."
The amounts of flame retardants found in the Salinas women were similar to national averages. As a result, the findings “raise concerns about women exposed to higher levels of PBDEs, which could be made clinically hyperthyroid,” Chevrier said.
Women in California on average have PBDE levels that are twice as high as the Salinas women. Californians have the highest documented exposures in the world, most likely because the state has the most stringent flammability standards for furniture and bedding.
Ami Zota, an epidemiologist at University of California, San Francisco who did not participate in the Salinas study, said the findings are "important to our understanding of PBDE toxicity in humans as well as to our understanding of thyroid disruption during pregnancy."
She added, though, that other studies should analyze women with higher exposures "because we may see different health effects at these higher levels."
Zota, whose expertise is the effects of environmental factors on reproductive health, added that all pregnant women should be routinely screened for thyroid hormones, which currently is not done. Such screening, she said, "may help detect early assaults of environmental chemicals during pregnancy and create opportunities for intervention and prevention."
Most exposure to the flame retardants comes from household dust, but food also is a major source. The chemicals are slow to break down and build up in fatty tissues, so they accumulate in fish, meat and other foods.
Two of the most ubiquitous PBDEs already have been banned in the United States. But other formulations have taken their place, and little is known about their potential health effects.
Birnbaum said in an interview last November that "there is no convincing evidence that PBDEs are declining in people or wildlife in the United States" despite the bans. "It's too soon."
A limitation of the study is that it did not analyze a type of PBDE, called deca, which is still in use, largely in electronics. It is being phased out by 2013 in the United States. Birnbaum said she was disappointed that the researchers did not have data on deca or other higher-brominated flame retardants, which also accumulate in human bodies.
New brominated and chlorinated compounds are being used today as flame retardants, and in the earlier interview, Birnbaum said "we kind of jump from the proverbial frying pan into the fire" by allowing use of the new compounds without more substantial testing. She is particularly concerned about chemicals called hydroxylated PBDEs, which are metabolites of some flame retardants.
“These are compounds that have the potential to be thyroid disruptors," she said Monday.
One theory about brominated flame retardants is that they mimic thyroid hormones, upsetting the balance needed in pregnant women for normal brain development of their children.
Several studies have reported a link between children's mental skills and the flame retardants. Children of New York City mothers with higher PBDE levels had children who scored lower on tests of mental and physical development, according to Columbia University study published last month. And in the Netherlands, children had reduced fine motor skills, lower IQs and more attention problems if their mothers were exposed to higher PBDEs. Similar effects have been documented in animal tests.
An earlier study in Indiana looked for a link between the flame retardants and thyroid hormones in pregnant women, and found no effect. But the study was considered too small to be reliable since only nine women were tested. Studies of non-pregnant adults, however, have found similar reductions in TSH in those with high exposures.
The new study detected no changes on the women’s thyroxine, or T4, which means they did not have full-blown clinical hyperthyroidism known to harm fetuses. Subclinical hyperthyroidism is when TSH is low but T4 is normal, and sometimes it can lead to the clinical condition.
NIEHS director reacts to study of pregnant women, urges more investigation of flame retardants, by Environmental Health News, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.environmentalhealthnews.org.