Sofas and vinyl flooring are poisoning children

Sofas and vinyl flooring are poisoning children: Scientists find high levels of toxins that affect brain development in kids exposed to flame retardants

  • Old sofas and vinyl flooring – particularly in public housing – contain hormone-disrupting toxins
  • Kids exposed to those products were found to have high levels of toxins in their blood and urine
  • Researchers warn these toxins can affect brain development and lead to obesity and elevated cancer risk 

Fire-resistant foam used in sofas and vinyl flooring are poisoning children, a study warned.

Kids who live in public housing, where those materials are commonplace, have toxin levels in their blood and urine up to 15 times higher than those who aren’t exposed.

Researchers warn this is yet another reason driving health disparities between the wealthy and poor: flame retardant chemicals (known as PBDEs) are linked to neurodevelopmental delays, obesity, endocrine and thyroid disruption, cancer and other diseases.

Dr Heather Stapleton of Duke University, who presented here findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference this week, warned that despite attempts to curb these chemicals, they are still pervasive.

What’s more, few studies have investigated how or whether these chemicals seep into the bloodstreams of children who are exposed to them.

‘There are concerns that these chemicals could affect the developing brain,’ Dr Stapleton said.

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Flame retardants 

These are called PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers).

They are a set of chemicals with powerful properties that disrupt hormones, and yet since the 1970s they have been added to all kinds of products to make them less susceptible to flames.  

As time passes, these chemicals rub off the products and accumulate on the surface. In the case of a TV, for example, that becomes risky because TVs gather dust, and that dust can mix with the PDBEs, which humans may inhale.

At one point, most couches, plastic bottles, rugs and TV were made with PDBEs in some shape or form.

As the dangers of PDBEs have emerged, more restrictions have been placed on how they can be used to limit our exposure. 

But they persist in many products, and have been found in farmed fish despite restrictions.

BBP in flooring and carpet

Benzyl butyl phthalate was mostly used as a plasticizer for PVC.

It has been linked to respiratory disorders, skin irritations, multiple myeolma and reproductive disorders.

The EU has banned BBP in all products that children would be exposed to. 

The US has limited BBP but not banned its use. 

‘In homes with flame retardants, particularly for young children who spend most of their time indoors, they have widespread exposure, for example in household dust.’

The chemicals Dr Stapleton investigates, which all fall under the umbrella term semi-volatile organic compounds, are used in electronic devices, furniture and building materials. 

Flame retardants, at one point used in most couches, rugs and TVs, have been linked to stunted development of the brain and reproductive system.

Phthalates, found in vinyl flooring and carpets, disrupt the way we store fat, fueling obesity.

While the EU has taken a strong stance to ban these chemicals, especially in children’s products, the US has not been so strong. 

There are more restrictions – in 2010, 80 percent of consumer products Dr Stapleton tested contained those chemicals. Now it’s closer to 20 percent, since regulators have cracked down.  

However, there is no ban, and they persist – particularly in public housing, where flooring, furniture and products haven’t been swapped out for safer ones. 

And regulators keep finding them in unexpected places. A study last year showed evidence of flame retardants in farmed fish, despite US and EU restrictions on PDBEs in fish-farming waters.  

Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Boston University, launched a three-year study of in-home exposures to these chemicals among 203 children from 190 families.  

‘Our primary goal was to investigate links between specific products and children’s exposures, and to determine how the exposure happened – was it through breathing, skin contact or inadvertent dust inhalation,’ Dr Stapleton said.

The study analyzed samples of indoor air, indoor dust and foam collected from furniture in each of the children’s homes, along with a hand wipe sample, urine and blood from each child.

They then quantified 44 biomarkers of exposure to different chemicals including phthalates, organophosphate esters, brominated flame retardants, parabens, phenols, antibacterial agents and perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).  

Children from homes where the sofa in the main living area contained PBDEs in its foam had a six-fold higher concentration of PBDEs in their blood. 

Children in homes that had vinyl flooring in all areas were found to have concentrations of benzyl butyl phthalate metabolite in their urine that were 15 times higher than those in children living with no vinyl flooring.

Benzyl butyl phthalate has been linked to respiratory disorders, skin irritations, multiple myeolma and reproductive disorders. 

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.


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