Flame retardants may slightly affect toddlers' mental development.

May 09, 2013

Gascon, M, M Fort, D Martínez, A-E Carsin, J Forns,JO Grimalt, L Santa Marina, N Lertxundi, J Sunyer and M Vrijheid. 2012. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in breast milk and neuropsychological development in infants. Environmental Health Perspectives http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1205266.

Synopsis by Glenys Webster

Flame retardants in first breast milk may have a small effect on mental development of toddlers, reports a new study from Spain. In tests measuring the toddlers' cognitive and motor skills, scores dropped 2 points for each 10-fold increase in total PBDEs in their mothers' milk. The flame retardants were widely used in furniture until 2005, and the last remaining PBDE will be phased out this year. Despite the bans, exposures are expected to continue for many years because of the high volume of the chemicals already in furniture cushions and electronics.

PBDE flame retardants in breast milk are associated with slightly lower mental development scores in 14-month-old children, reports a new study from Spain. The chemicals were measured in the first milk called the colostrum.

On average, children with higher exposures scored 2 points lower on the mental development scale than less-exposed children. The scale measures age-appropriate advances, including performance abilities, memory, and early language skills. The average mental development score is 100, and two-thirds of children score between 85 and 115 points.

Most of the effect was from BDE 209 – the main ingredient in the deca PBDE mixture and the only PBDE formulation still on the North American market. It is slated to be phased out in 2013.

PBDEs are a group of chemicals that have been widely used in furniture foam, the plastic parts of home electronics and certain textiles. Nearly everyone has PBDEs in their blood.

This study contributes to the growing evidence that early-life exposures to PBDEs affect brain development in children. Previous studies have found links between prenatal PBDE exposures and both mental and physical development in 1- to 6-year-old children. Another study found poorer social competence and more attention-related ADHD symptoms in 4-year-old children with higher PBDE levels in their blood. Collectively, these studies support ongoing regulatory decisions to ban the use of PBDEs in consumer products.

Two of the three commercial formulations of PBDEs – penta and octa – were phased-out in North America beginning in 2005. The deca formulation was banned in Europe in 2008, and will be phased out in North America in 2013. Despite the bans, PBDE exposures are expected to continue because of the large repositories of PBDEs in older furniture and other items in our homes and workplaces.

Many PBDEs also break down very slowly. The health effects of the chemicals used to replace PBDEs are also mostly unknown.

People are exposed mainly through the diet, but also by ingesting and inhaling contaminated indoor dust and air. Infants are also exposed through their mother’s breast milk. Nonetheless, the benefits of breastfeeding – balanced nutrition, enhanced immune systems, mother-child bonding – are thought to outweigh the risks from exposures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the American Association of Pediatrics.

North Americans have some of the highest exposures to PBDEs in the world. Levels are especially high in California, because of a strict flammability standard called TB 117, which mandates the use of large volumes of chemical flame retardants in foam furniture. A recent proposal to change flammability standards in the state could reduce the use of flame retardants in furniture.

Because PBDEs dissolve in fat, they pass from a mother’s body into her breast milk. Infants and children also have high PBDE exposures through dust, because they spend a lot of time on the floor and often put their hands in their mouths. These exposures have raised concerns about potential developmental effects of PBDEs in children.

Researchers measured PBDE levels in colostrum – an early form of breast milk – collected from 290 Spanish mothers 2 to 4 days after their babies’ birth in 2004 - 2008. The children’s mental and psychomotor development was then measured at 12 - 18 months, using standardized tests. Information on other factors that can affect mental development was assessed through interviews or gleaned from medical records.

Toddlers whose mothers' milk had higher total PBDE levels had slightly lower – but not statistically significant – mental development scores compared to children with lower exposures. The scores dropped about 2 points for each 10-fold increase in total PBDEs. These results took into account the baby’s sex, gestational age, day-care attendance, and the mother’s social class, education, and parity, among other factors.

No associations with children’s psychomotor development were found. The study's authors suggest more detailed and larger studies are needed to confirm the reported associations.

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