Friday, April 3, 2009

Flame retardants in the environment

In an earlier post I wrote about a study that showed a possible abnormal immune reaction in children with autism to a flame retardant called BDE-47.  At the time I thought it was mostly an academic concern and was just a good example of how the environment could interact differently in children with autism.

It turns out that there could be more to it than that.  According to an article on Science Daily a new report has been issued by NOAA scientists concerning the concentration of flame retardants in coastal waters -
NOAA scientists, in a first-of-its-kind report issued today, state that Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), chemicals commonly used in commercial goods as flame retardants since the 1970s, are found in all United States coastal waters and the Great Lakes, with elevated levels near urban and industrial centers.

The new findings are in contrast to analysis of samples as far back as 1996 that identified PBDEs in only a limited number of sites around the nation.
The original report is available on this page.  I have not yet read the entire report but there are some facts that have jumped out at me from the parts that I have read.

First, this report is is talking about Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) which are brominated flame retardants like BDE-47 that was mentioned in the earlier study.  So the results from earlier research could possibly apply to the PDBEs that a child is exposed to from the environment.

Second, from the executive summary of the NOAA report -
In recent years, PBDEs have generated international concern due to their global distribution and associated adverse environmental and human health effects. Laboratory studies indicate that PBDEs may impair liver, thyroid, and neurobehavioral development, and the most sensitive populations are likely to be pregnant women, developing fetuses, and infants.
So there are concerns that exposure can cause impaired neurobehavioral development in fetuses and infants. 

Third, even though production of PDBEs have been banned in Europe and Asia there are still some forms that are being made in the Unites States (from the executive summary again) -
PBDE production has been banned throughout Europe and Asia, and production of some PBDE mixtures has been voluntarily discontinued by U.S. industry, although one form of PBDE is still produced. While production of PBDE flame retardants began in the 1970s and peaked in 1999 they are still found in many consumer products including many household items. Because the application of PBDEs has been so widespread – including many consumer plastics, textiles, electronics, and furniture – scientists speculate that they may present an ongoing and growing problem in coastal environments
Which is indeed what this most recent report has found - that the concentration of PBDEs in coastal waters are growing.

The following is conjecture on my part - I am not an expert in this subject and it is entirely possible (some would say likely) that I am could be completely off base here. 
Having said that if you put the above pieces of information together, specifically -
  1. PBDEs can impair neurobehavioral development in infants.
  2. PBDEs could cause immunine problems in some children with autism. 
  3. The concentration of PBDEs in the environment is growing.
what you are left with is an example of how a growing chemical exposure could be related to the growing number of cases of autism.  I am not saying that I think that PBDEs are in any way responsible for the growth of autism but still it seems plausible that there could be relation.

Just my 2 cents worth.

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