Study: Flame retardant chemicals in household goods harmful to children’s social behavior

CORVALLIS, Oregon — Some chemicals commonly used to treat furniture, electronics, and many other household items to prevent fires may affect the sociability and development of young children, according to a recent pilot study.

Oregon State University researchers studied correlations between the social behaviors of children and their exposure to flame retardants widely found in common household goods from carpets to couches to kitchen appliances.

Lit match with flame
A new study finds that common flame retardant chemicals found in many household products can be harmful to a child’s social behavior and development.

While past research has found relationships between the use of fire-resistant chemicals and cognitive function in children, there was little research focusing on social behavior.

The research team recruited 92 Oregon children between the ages of three and five for the study. They gave them specialized wristbands made of silicon designed to absorb chemicals the same way a living cell does.

The children’s parents also completed questionnaires about the family’s socioeconomic status and home life, while preschool teachers were polled on the participants’ behavior in the classroom.

All of the children tested positive for some measure of exposure to flame retardant.

“When we analyzed behavior assessments and exposure levels, we observed that the children who had more exposure to certain types of the flame retardant were more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors such as aggression, defiance, hyperactivity, inattention and bullying,” says Molly Kile, corresponding authors of the study and an environmental epidemiologist and associate professor at OSU, in a news release.

More specifically, children exposed to what’s known as organophosphate-based flame retardants (OPFRs) exhibited the irresponsible behavior Kile describes.  Those exposed to brominated diphenyl ethers (BDEs) were reported as less assertive by their teachers during the study.

OPFRs have slowly replaced BDEs in recent years, and both remain the most common fire retardant chemicals found in homes today.

Study co-author Shannon Lipscomb, an associate professor and lead of the human development and family sciences program at the university, says the team controlled for family demographics, home life characteristics, and other related factors when making the connection to social development.

“This suggests that flame retardants may have a unique effect on development apart from the effects of children’s early social experiences,” she says.

Flame retardant chemicals became more widely used by manufacturers in 1975. A 2014 law allowed manufacturers to meet fire safety standards in their products without adding flame retardant chemicals, but most buildings still have items carrying these chemicals, which are not bound in the material.

The team plans to launch a study that tests their findings over a much longer time period while monitoring for any other negative effects.

“If scientists find strong evidence that exposure to flame retardants affects children’s behaviors, we can develop strategies that prevent these exposures and help improve children’s lives,” says Kyle. “This type of public health science is needed to figure out how to address the root causes of behavioral concerns that can affect children’s school readiness and overall well-being.”

The study was published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Health.

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