March 2, 2024

Exposure to Flame Retardants Tied to Premature Births and Higher Birth Weights Study

A recent study conducted by researchers at UC Davis Health revealed that exposure to organophosphate ester flame retardants during pregnancy is associated with preterm birth, particularly among females. Furthermore, the study found a correlation between these chemicals and higher birth weights, which raises concerns about an increased risk of obesity. Published in Environmental Health Perspectives, this groundbreaking research sheds light on the potential long-term impact of environmental chemical exposure on fetal development.

Jiwon Oh, first author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Public Health Sciences, Division of Environmental and Occupational Health, emphasizes the importance of understanding the effects of environmental chemicals during pregnancy. Oh states that these findings contribute to our understanding of how these chemicals may quietly pose lasting health challenges for future generations.

In the mid-2000s, polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants, a class of chemicals, were gradually phased out due to concerns regarding their potential toxicity. Subsequently, organophosphate esters (OPEs) stepped in as a replacement and are now commonly used in foams found in furniture, electronics, baby products, textiles, and building materials to enhance fire resistance and increase the flexibility of plastics.

OPEs have a unique chemical structure that allows them to slowly degrade and become part of dust. Individuals are exposed to OPEs through skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation of indoor dust. These chemicals are frequently detected in urine samples of the general U.S. population and pregnant individuals.

The research involved a study group of 6,646 mother-child pairs from 16 cohorts across the U.S. participating in the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcome (ECHO) study. The participants were from diverse backgrounds and regions.

During the study, researchers measured nine OPE biomarkers in urine samples collected between 2007 and 2020, primarily during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. Birth outcomes, including gestational age and birth weight, were assessed using medical records or parent reports.

The findings of the study indicate that OPEs could potentially impact thyroid hormone levels, cause inflammation, and oxidative stress, all of which play a role in preterm births. OPEs are also known to be endocrine disruptors, potentially contributing to abnormal placental development. Interestingly, the impact of these chemicals may vary depending on the sex of the fetus.

It is important to note that as OPEs are widely used in various products like building materials, textiles, and electronics, consumers currently have limited options to choose products without OPEs. Jiwon Oh highlights that policy changes and regulations are necessary to mitigate exposure to these chemicals effectively.

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1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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