Flame retardants while protecting you from fire hazards may be harming your fertility doubling the time it takes to conceive according to a 2010 study. The flame retardants in question - polybrominated diphenyl ether or PBDEs - have not been manufactured since 2004 but you maybe exposed to high levels of the ubiquitous chemicals for years to come as they slowly break down in the environment.
Flame retardants are liberally used in the manufacture of furniture, carpets, car seats, baby car seats, aircraft seats, electrical equipment and are especially high in foam products, even breast-feeding pillows. Ironically, flame retardants are present in food too, especially fatty foods; a 2010 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives evaluated the levels of PBDEs in a number of common foods and some were alarmingly high.
The highest concentration of PBDEs were found in multiple samples of butter and one sample had extremely high levels - 135 times the average - in the butter and the wrapper had even higher levels. Other foods that made the top of the list were canned sardines and fresh salmon. Fruits and vegetables were at the bottom of the list.
Fruits and vegetables however can be stored in fire-retardant soaked plastic trays for cooling during transport and storage, as water is dripped over the produce there is concern that fruits and vegetables could be soaking in fire-retardant, a practice which is being called into question by the Environmental Working Group. Yet another reason to buy local organic produce whenever possible.
Most of us are exposed and 97% of us have detectable levels of flame retardants in our blood, even babies cord blood contains the chemicals, the question is how much is too much when trying to conceive?
Flame retardants become an integral part of house dust and a key way to reduce exposure is to take steps to minimize house dust. Here are a few tips to keeping your exposure levels low:
Avoid re-upholstering over old foam.
Stay out of the house when removing old carpets and foam underlay
Use a HEPA-filter on your vacuum to remove small particles from the air
Dust with moist cloths to mop up dust
Avoid buying old furniture with old foam
Buy local organic produce when possible
Buy organic meats and dairy foods
The study implicating flame retardants in infertility demonstrated that women with higher levels of flame retardant - PBDE - in their blood found that it took twice as long to become pregnant compared to women with lower levels. Two hundred and twenty three women were interviewed regarding how long it took them to conceive and their blood levels of flame retardants were measured during pregnancy. One of the study researchers, Dr. Kim Harley from the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health stated that:
"For every tenfold increase in PBDEs in the blood, we saw a 30 percent to 50 percent decrease in the odds of becoming pregnant in any given month."
The study concluded that:
"We found significant decreases in fecundability associated with PBDE exposure in women. Future studies are needed to replicate and confirm this finding."
It remains unclear exactly how the flame retardants interfere with fertility but previous studies have shown that flame retardants can adversely affect thyroid function which is critical to fertility and pregnancy. Other studies have shown that PBDEs alter estrogen metabolism and act as endocrine disruptors. Further studies are needed to confirm and elucidate the findings.
Reference: Harley KG, Marks AR, Chevrier J, Bradman A, Sjödin A, Eskenazi B 2010. PBDE Concentrations in Women’s Serum and Fecundability. Environ Health Perspect 118:699-704. doi:10.1289/ehp.0901450