Effects of flame retardants on children’s development unclear.

Nov 30, 2009

Roze E, L Meijer, A Bakker, KNJA Van Braeckel, PJJ Sauer and AF Bos. 2009. Prenatal exposure to organohalogens, including brominated flame retardants, influences motor, cognitive, and behavioral performance at school age. Environmental Health Perspectives doi:10.1289/ehp.0901015.


The first study to examine the effects of commonly used flame retardant chemicals on children’s brain development has found both harmful and beneficial associations.

A study with Dutch children finds that polybrominated flame retardants (PBDEs) can cross the placental barrier from mother to fetus and influence childhood development years later. Higher levels of flame retardants in the mothers during pregnancy was associated with decreased fine motor skills, decline in attention, improved coordination, improved visual perception and improved behavior in the 6-year-old children.

Prebirth exposure to PBDEs has been associated with poorer learning and memory and increased hyperactivity in rats. But until now, no published studies had examined the associations of PBDEs with neurobehavior in humans.

This small study in the Netherlands determined that higher PBDE concentrations in mothers’ blood during pregnancy are associated with changes in cognitive ability and behavior in their children at age 6.

Children with higher in utero exposure to certain PBDEs were more likely to be identified by their teachers as having problems with aggression, attention or rule breaking behaviors. Maternal PBDE exposure was also associated with poorer fine motor skills.

However, children with higher exposure to other PBDEs were less likely to be reported by their parents as having depression or anxiety, being withdrawn, or having other internalizing behavior problems. These chemicals were associated with better balance and coordination.

PBDEs were not associated with general learning or verbal ability in the children or with differences in IQ.

PBDEs are persistent compounds that have been widely used to slow burning in household items such as furniture, textiles, electronics, and carpet padding. High levels of PBDEs have been found in house dust, with levels in the United States being considerably higher than other regions of the world. Exposure in the US is nearly ubiquitous, with 97 percent of Americans having detectable levels of PBDEs in their blood.

The present exploratory study was small, with only 62 children participating. The children were followed from before birth and were tested for behavior, motor and cognitive function. The mothers filled out questionnaires and levels of organohalogen chemicals – including PBDEs – were measured during late pregnancy.

The finding of both harmful and beneficial effects are puzzling and require further exploration. Several more studies of the developmental effects of PBDEs in children are currently underway. The results of these additional studies may help explain and clarify these conflicting results.