Flame retardant chemicals are found in everything from furniture and mattresses to electronics and baby toys. Notorious neurotoxins, these widespread chemicals have been linked to serious health risks like infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, hormone disruptions, various forms of cancer and reduced IQ scores and behavioral problems in children.

One variety of flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), resembles the molecular structure of PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development.

As 1 in 6 U.S. children now suffers from neurodevelopmental disorders, research into possible environmental culprits is ongoing, and a recent study published in Environmental Health Perspectives revealed PBDEs are likely playing a role in the increasing rates of these disorders. In fact, the researchers concluded, “Preventing developmental exposure to PBDEs could help prevent loss of human intelligence.”1

Developmental Exposure to Flame Retardants Reduces IQ

A systematic review and meta-analysis looked into exposures to PBDEs that occurred near conception or during in utero, perinatal or childhood time periods. Children experience greater exposure to chemicals pound-for-pound than adults,2 and though the blood-brain barrier is fully formed at birth, its function may be immature, which may allow greater chemical exposures to reach their developing brains.

Children also have lower levels of some chemical-binding proteins, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which allows more of a chemical to reach their organs, while systems that detoxify and excrete chemicals in adults are not fully developed in the children.

These factors, coupled with the fact that a child will be around for 80 years or more, allowing more than enough time for chemicals to do their damage, signals a major challenge for kids born today. Exposure that occurs in utero may be even more problematic, as EWG reported:

“The pace and complexity of growth and development in the womb are unmatched later in life. Three weeks after conception, an embryo, still only 1/100th the size of a water droplet, has nevertheless grown at such an explosive rate that were it not to slow down, it would be born literally the size of a million Earths.

… At no other time in life does a person create so much from so little in so short a time. Industrial chemicals that interrupt this intricate process can, at high levels, wreak havoc in the form of severe birth defects, or at lower levels cause subtle but important changes in development that surface later in childhood as learning or behavioral problems, or in adulthood in the form of certain cancers or perhaps neurodegenerative disease.”

The featured study revealed, in fact, that greater exposures to flame retardants during pregnancy are associated with lower intelligence in the child. Specifically, for every tenfold increase in prenatal exposure to PBDEs, there was a 3.7-point decline in IQ test scores in children.3 According to Newsweek:4

“Exactly how PBDEs cause a decline in intelligence is unknown. However, research increasingly suggests they impair the activity of the endocrine system, the body’s delicate system of hormone-producing glands that controls everything from daily sleep-wake cycles to sexual development. And during pregnancy, the endocrine system has an enormous effect on the development of the fetus’s brain.”

Past research has also demonstrated that children born to mothers with higher levels of flame retardant chemicals in their body had a 4.5-point average decrease in IQ,5 while exposure in childhood is strongly associated with poor attention span, reduced fine motor coordination and a decrease in cognitive ability.6

‘Millions of IQ Points Lost’

While a few points’ reduction in IQ may seem small, the widespread exposure to flame retardants makes the decrease especially serious. Study co-author Tracey Woodruff told Medicine Net, “Even the loss of a few IQ points on a population-wide level means more children who need early interventions, and families who may face personal and economic burdens for the rest of their lives.”7

She continued to SF Gate, “Despite a series of bans and phaseouts, nearly everyone is still exposed to PBDE flame retardants, and children are at the most risk … Our findings should be a strong wake-up call to those policymakers currently working to weaken or eliminate environmental health protections.”8 PBDE usage was phased out of new products in 2004, but it still exists widely in old furniture and other products. You can be exposed to the chemicals via food and household dust, for example.

In a U.S. study conducted by EWG, flame retardants were detected in every sample of household dust, at concerning levels. “The average level of brominated fire retardants measured in dust from nine homes was more than 4,600 parts per billion (ppb),” EWG reported, continuing:9

“A tenth sample, collected in a home where products with fire retardants were recently removed, contained more than 41,000 ppb of brominated fire retardants — twice as high as the maximum level previously reported by any dust study worldwide. Like PCBs, their long-banned chemical relatives, the brominated fire retardants known as PBDEs … are persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative, building up in people’s bodies over a lifetime.

In minute doses they and other brominated fire retardants impair attention, learning, memory and behavior in laboratory animals. EWG’s test results indicate that consumer products, not industrial releases, are the most likely sources of the rapid buildup of PBDEs in people, animals and the environment … Our findings raise concerns that children may ingest significant amounts of toxic fire retardants via dust.”