Black and Latino toddlers may have significantly higher levels of toxic flame retardants in their bodies than white children, according to a new study that challenges one of industry's chief arguments for expanding use of the chemicals.
The peer-reviewed study, to be published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, in the blood of all 83 children tested. But black and Latino toddlers had levels nearly twice as high on average as white children did.
Led by Duke University chemist Heather Stapleton, the researchers also found that levels were higher in children whose fathers didn't have a college education, an indicator of lower economic status. The children, ages 1 to 3, were tested from May 2009 to November 2010 in North Carolina.
The findings could help shape a broader debate about flame retardants. When lawmakers in states across the nation have sought to ban certain chemicals over health concerns, an industry front group has ominously warned that doing so would result in more deaths among poor and minority children.
Before lawmakers in Washington state blocked legislation this spring that would have banned two toxic flame retardants, the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, funded by the three leading manufacturers of flame retardants, told community groups that the bill would "negatively affect minorities in particular."
"We cannot stand by and let (environmentalists) drown out the voices of those most at risk for fire danger: minorities, the elderly, the infirm and ironically, children," a representative for Citizens for Fire Safety wrote to one advocate in a January email headlined "Minority Fire Safety at Risk."
In New York, the president of the state NAACP condemned another proposed flame retardant ban, telling the sponsor in a January letter that his bill "caters to a few vocal environmentalists at the expense of the safety of the entire African-American community."
Fire death rates in poor, minority communities are higher than the national average. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission now believes the best way to prevent furniture fires is to require upholstery to resist smoldering cigarettes. If the fabric stops a fire from starting, a top official recently told the Tribune, there is no reason to keep adding flame retardants to the foam underneath.
The study published Wednesday also detected PBDEs in all dust samples collected from the children's homes, even though industry voluntarily took two of those chemicals off the market years ago.
Manufacturers stopped making penta, a PBDE added to furniture cushions, in 2004 after researchers revealed the chemicals were building up in the blood of babies and in breast milk around the world. The chemical has been linked to developmental and neurological problems in children.
Another PBDE called deca has been added for years to the hard plastic casings of televisions and other electronics. Chemical makers agreed to voluntarily stop making it by the end of 2013 after studies linked it to health problems and documented how it breaks down into penta in people's bodies.
The chemicals remain in many older household products. Stapleton's best advice to reduce exposure is to wash hands often.
The American Chemistry Council, the industry's chief trade group, said it has not seen the study and declined to comment.
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