In a world permeated with chemicals, toddlers' penchant for crawling on floors, chewing on assorted objects and touching everything within reach expose their bodies to a disproportionate amount of toxic pollutants.
That's the conclusion of a study released today by the Environmental Working Group in Oakland, which monitored 20 pairs of moms and their young children. The group reported that the children, on average, carried more than three times the amount of flame retardants in their blood than their mothers.
It's only the second study to examine this chemical load in U.S. toddlers, and breaks new ground in taking a national glimpse at its prevalence.
MediaNews, in its 2005 series "A Body's Burden," first opened researchers' eyes to the particular perils faced by young children in a world where more than 80,000 chemicals are found in all manner of products.
This latest research, which focused on blood levels of flame retardants in samplings of mothers and toddlers across the country, dovetails with findings of the award-winning newspaper series by reporter Douglas Fischer, according to Linda Birnbaum, a senior toxicologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The series reported that a 20-month-old boy and his 5-year-old sister consistently bore higher levels of flame retardants and other chemicals in their bodies in comparison with their parents. The results were condensed into a journal article, published in 2006 by the National Institutes of Health, and it's now cited in scientific literature.
"Not only does this (new) study agree with what we saw with the Fischer study," said Birnbaum, "but it indicates that children and teenagers have (higher levels of chemicals) than adults."
She added, "This is not something we would have predicted a few years ago."
The new study found that in 19 of the 20 families, concentrations of flame retardants were significantly higher in children than in their mothers. In all, 11 different types of flame retardants were found in these children.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts periodic monitoring of blood levels for more than 140 chemicals in a cross section of adults across the United States, analyses of young children hasn't been part of that effort.
But it should be, insists Dr. Anila Jacob, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group's Washington, D.C., office.
"Children are so much more vulnerable to toxic chemicals," she said, describing animal studies linking permanent changes in growing brains with exposure to flame retardants.
Birnbaum is one of the country's experts on the health effects of flame retardants, also called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. She said research suggests that flame retardants circulating in the body damage nerve tissue, affecting learning and memory.
A 2008 report from the EPA stated that animal studies on PBDEs found that the chemicals were damaging to the kidney, thyroid and liver. One flame retardant in particular, Deca, is also a "possible human carcinogen," the EPA report noted.
But the minute amounts of flame retardant detected in the Environmental Working Group study hardly raise reason for alarm, stated John Kyle, North American director for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, representing Deca manufacturers, in an email.
Flame retardants save lives, Kyle emphasized, and no one has ever reported any "illness, ailment or harm" from exposure to the chemicals, even among those working with it, he stated.
Nonetheless, because of mounting concerns over their possible health effects, even in minute quantities, the forum supports close monitoring and analysis by scientists and regulators, Kyle added.
Charlie Auer, director of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, said the agency will soon be asking U.S. manufacturers of flame retardants to sponsor additional studies on exposure effects in children.
Deca is the only type of flame retardant still produced in the country.
The manufacturer of two other varieties voluntarily ceased production in 2005, and the EPA since enacted a regulation banning U.S. production or import of those two chemicals, due to health and environmental concerns. Loopholes, however, allow import of products made with these chemicals, today's study noted.
In addition, they're still in furniture and foam items purchased before the phase-out.
Deca is used to keep the plastics in televisions, computers, stereo equipment and other electronic gear from catching fire, as well as products like the lining of some curtains. Like other flame retardants, it slows the ignition and spread of fire, providing time to escape or extinguish a fire. They've been remarkably effective in reducing death, injury and damage from fires.
Other varieties of flame retardants are also found in furniture, carpets, couches, baby seats, pillows and other products made of foam or plastics. Some manufacturers are voluntarily phasing out these products and replacing them with other flame retardants, or redesigning their products to lessen fire danger. But there's no way for consumers to know which flame retardant, if any, is in a product.
Minute traces of flame retardants have been detected worldwide in air, sediments, surface water, aquatic animal species and terrestrial wildlife. In the Bay Area, two pairs of nesting peregrine falcons had some of the highest levels of Deca of any living organism tested.
The most common route of exposure to flame retardants comes from dust in homes, or from directly touching products made from it. Given its prevalence in the environment, it has also entered the food supply. Traces were found in a variety of grocery store items tested for flame retardants in one study.
Two states, Washington and Maine, now ban the use of Deca, and legislators in 10 other states, including California, have proposed bans, according to the Environmental Working Group. The European Union also banned the sales of products containing Deca.
Kristi Chester Vance is a San Francisco mother who participated in the Environmental Working Group study, along with her 4-year-old daughter Stella, to help advance the research. But she decided she didn't want to know what level of flame retardant she and her daughter carry. Stella already endured a round with lead poisoning when she was younger, and Vance wants relief from worries over environmental contaminants she has little control over.
Vance wants the government to take a far more aggressive stance in studying the thousands of industrial chemicals approved for use, usually with limited data on health effects.
But she makes efforts to keep the ubiquitous flame retardant residue out of her home, by mopping regularly to get rid of dust, using a vacuum with a fine particle filter, and she keeps her laptop computer off her lap. She and her children also wash their hands more frequently.
Beyond that, Vance figures she can't do much more and still maintain her peace of mind.
"You just reach a point where you have to balance mental health and just enjoy these few years of childhood without looking at your kids and wondering what's going on in their cells," she said. "Sadly, I have to work pretty hard at it."
Reach Suzanne Bohan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (650) 348-4324
SOURCE: Environmental Working Group