Home Decor To Die For

Common chemical found in foam furniture cushions, and other household items, may be health hazard, new study shows

FRIDAY, Oct. 5, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- That after-dinner snooze on the family sofa could net you more than just an irritated spouse -- it could be compromising your health, at least according to new research.

A new study suggests that a common class of flame-retardant chemicals used to treat a variety of objects, including foam furniture cushions and stuffing for some couches and chairs, might very well be a health hazard.

Those compounds that make up PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are igniting more than a little concern in some scientific circles.

"We suspect that the products, such as polyurethane foam used in furniture, expose a lot of people [to potential health risks] probably in their own homes," says study author Ronald A. Hites, a professor of environmental and analytical chemistry at Indiana University in Bloomington. Up to 20 percent of the weight of the furniture foam can PBDEs. Other products that could contain PBDEs include electrical appliances, some computers and even fabrics used for home decor.

Although researchers say they have little evidence to prove that PBDEs are harmful, they say that might be because nobody's ever bothered to measure levels or document health risks. Hites and his team, however, found what he termed significant levels of PBDEs in umbilical cord blood, in fish and in air samples. The amounts found were in the parts-per-trillion range.

"Just having a level of a chemical in your body doesn't automatically imply health consequences, but if a chemical starts showing up in our bodies, then studies must be done to see if, in fact, it does pose a health threat," says Dr. Jacqueline Moline, assistant professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

These new findings add fuel to the fire lit by Swedish scientists in 1998. Their studies showed that concentrations of PBDEs in mother's milk have doubled every five years for more than two decades.

"[And] these women were just regular members of the Swedish population -- they were not likely getting it from occupational exposure," says Hites, adding that suggests the chemical exposure occurred through the course of "regular living,"

Moline adds that the higher levels could be the result of chemical accumulations in the body, or simply exposure to increasingly higher levels.

"This is clearly something that needs monitoring. Studies have to be planned to see if this does pose any human health dangers," says Moline.

The new study, presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, was designed to measure the existence of PBDEs in various American venues. Included in the study was blood from four umbilical cords, 15 smelt fish from the Great Lakes and air samples from downtown Chicago. In all three tests, researchers say PBDEs were found in about the same concentration as PCBs, another type of chlorinated chemical that is linked to various cancers, immune disorders and other ills.

In addition, says Hites, it's doubtful if any of the PBDE contamination came from factory dumping or a manufacturing process, but instead from everyday use of consumer items treated with the flame-retardant chemical.

"[It was] most likely due to the off-gassing of all sorts of products that use PBDEs for its flame-retardant properties." Off-gassing is where products that are treated with a chemical -- foam cushions, for example -- continue to emit that compound after treatment, sometimes up to several years, depending on the chemicals involved.

In case you're wondering if those cute little cowboy-print, flame-retardant PJs you put on Junior every night are dangerous duds, Hites says not to worry.

"It's a different type of flame retardant," he says, adding that, in general, making products flame-resistant is a good idea as long as the compound has been studied and is proven safe.

Currently, there are numerous types of flame retardants available for use that have been tested and are believed safe. Most work the same way: controlling the ignition of fire by converting volatile gases to those that won't burn, or preventing the spread of fire across a surface by creating some type of barrier between the flames and the product.

What To Do

To learn more about PBDEs and their health effects, click here.

For a new European report on how PBDEs are affecting fish and other food sources, click here.

For information on flame-retardant chemicals that have tested safe, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ronald A. Hites, Ph.D., study author, professor of environmental and analytical chemistry, Indiana University, Bloomington; Jacqueline Moline, M.D., assistant professor of environmental and occupational medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York; presentation August 2001, annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, Chicago
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