PBDE Flame Retardants

What are PBDE Flame Retardants? Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a class of flame retardant compounds. They are used to reduce the flammability of items in our homes, including textiles, foam in furniture,  carpet padding, and plastic housings for electronics. They are also used in construction materials,  automobiles and airplanes.

How are we exposed to PBDEs?

  • Because PBDEs are not chemically bound to the products that contain them, PBDEs can leach into the surrounding environment where they may remain for many years, especially indoors.
  • PBDEs have been found across the globe in air, soil, sediment, dust, food,  wildlife, and humans.
  • House dust is thought to be one of the main pathways for human exposure to PBDEs.

Why are we concerned about PBDEs?PBDEs are detectable in the blood of 97% of American adults. Most people around the world have some levels of PBDEs in their bodies. Higher levels have been observed in North Americans than Europeans or Asians. The highest levels of PBDEs are found in the bodies of Californians, possibly due to the state’s unique flammability standards legislation (Technical Bulletin 117).

  • PBDEs have been linked to hormonal and neurodevelopmental disruption in both human and animal studies.
  • PBDEs have a similar structure to that of thyroid hormones. Alterations in thyroid hormone function is one of the most commonly reported health effects of PBDEs.  Thyroid hormones play an essential role in fetal and child brain development.
  • PBDEs have been found in human breast milk, exposing young children and leading to a potential toxic disruption of the developing hormone systems and brain.

What is being done?

  • Growing concerns about the health impacts of PBDEs have led to decline in their production and use in the U.S. and Europe.
  • Banning their use: Two commercial mixtures of PBDEs (the pentaBDE and octaBDE) which are primarily used in foam-containing items, were withdrawn from the U.S. market in 2004.  In 2010, these mixtures were banned internationally by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.  The third mixture (decaBDE), used mainly in electronic products, will be completely phased out of production by 2013.
  • However, it is likely that exposures to PBDEs will continue for a long period of time due to the presence in our homes of items manufactured before these dates.

Findings from CERCH Research on PBDE Flame Retardants:

From the CHAMACOS Study: Health Outcomes Study –

  • Higher PBDE exposures during pregnancy were associated with:
    • Decreased female fertility. (Go to publication)
    • Altered maternal thyroid hormone levels during pregnancy. (Go to publication)
    • Lower infant birth weight. (Go to publication)
    • But not with neonatal thyroid hormone. (Go to publication)

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