Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Amid all the reminders to stay indoors this year, scientists in California are warning about the dangers still inside your home. A new study finds household chemicals, particularly flame retardants, could be contaminating your body right now. Researchers say this is especially dangerous for pregnant women, as their research reveals these chemicals cause offspring to develop diabetes.

PBDEs, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are flame retardant chemicals added to everything from furniture, to upholstery, to electronics. Unfortunately, they are released into the air as these items age, allowing them to be inhaled by their owners.

“PBDEs are everywhere in the home. They’re impossible to completely avoid,” says Dr. Margarita Curras-Collazo, a neuroscientist from UC-Riverside in a university release.

Previous studies have detailed how these particles quickly spread from electronic devices on to a user’s hands. Ironically, those reports add that PBDEs aren’t really necessary for modern televisions and other devices but are still included.

“Even though the most harmful PBDEs have been banned from production and import into the U.S., inadequate recycling of products that contain them has continued to leach PBDEs into water, soil, and air,” says Curras-Collazo. “As a result, researchers continue to find them in human blood, fat, fetal tissues, as well as maternal breast milk in countries worldwide.”

PBDE’s link to diabetes

The new study examined the affect of PBDE exposure on mice and their offspring. Their findings reveal a mother can pass along these chemicals to their children while pregnant and through their breastmilk after delivery.

“Remarkably, in adulthood, long after the exposure to the chemicals, the female offspring developed diabetes,” lead study author Elena Kozlova says.

Diabetes results from an inability to control blood sugar levels in the body. After a healthy person eats, the pancreas releases insulin which helps cells process glucose sugar. When cells become resistant to insulin, too much glucose remains in the blood. This can lead to kidney, heart, nerve, and eye problems.

“This study is unique because we tested both the mothers and their offspring for all the hallmarks of diabetes exhibited in humans,” Curras-Collazo explains. “This kind of testing has not been done before, especially on female offspring.”

Researchers gave low levels of PBDEs to pregnant mice; similar to the exposure a human woman has in her living room during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

The results reveal all of the babies eventually developed an intolerance to glucose, high glucose levels, insulin insensitivity, and low blood insulin levels. All of these symptoms are trademarks of diabetes. The babies also had high levels of endocannabinoids in their livers. Study authors say these molecules have a connection to appetite, metabolism, and obesity.

Protecting infants from ‘killer couch chemicals’

Although offspring suffered serious problems due to PBDEs, researchers find the mothers only developed slight glucose intolerance.

“Our findings indicate that chemicals in the environment, like PBDEs, can be transferred from mother to offspring, and exposure to them during the early developmental period is damaging to health,” Curras-Collazo says.

“We need to know if human babies exposed to PBDEs both before and after birth go on to become diabetic children and adults,” Kozlova adds.

For now, the UC-Riverside team is urging people to be mindful of their exposure to PBDEs. They recommend washing hands before eating, vacuuming living areas frequently, and buying furniture that doesn’t use flame retardant chemicals.

“We believe the benefits babies get from mothers’ milk far outweigh the risks of passing on the PBDEs to children. We do not recommend curtailing breastfeeding,” Curras-Collazo concludes. “But let’s advocate for protecting breast milk and our bodies from killer couch chemicals.”

The study appears in the journal Scientific Reports.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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