Fire-resistant chemicals used in electronics, furniture and even baby seats could harm children’s brains, scientists have warned.
US researchers who reviewed dozens of international studies found a link between exposure to organophosphate esters and lower IQ and attention span in youngsters.
The chemicals had been assumed to be safe by regulators but the research shows they are neurotoxic and ‘just as harmful’ as some banned flame retardants.
Scientists say their prominence in a wide range of baby products and building materials could threaten ‘a whole generation’ in terms of brain development.
Experts were already aware of how toxic the chemicals are when used in nerve agents and pesticides, but they were thought to be safe in manufactured goods.
The scientists published their research in a commentary in scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives today.
Common chemicals used to prevent fires in TVs and car seats could harm babies’ brains, scientists have warned [stock image]
Lead author and neuroendocrinologist at North Carolina State University Heather Patisaul said: ‘The use of organophosphate esters in everything from TVs to car seats has proliferated under the false assumption that they’re safe.
‘Unfortunately, these chemicals appear to be just as harmful as the chemicals they’re intended to replace but act by a different mechanism.’
What are organophosphate esters?
Organophosphate esters are chemicals used to make consumer products including TVs and car seats less flammable.
They were brought in to replace phased out some halogenated flame retardents which were shown to be toxic.
The chemicals work by char layer on burning materials, preventing oxygen stoking flames.
Up until recently, scientists considered their use as a retardant safe, despite their toxicity when used as fertilizer or nerve agents already well known.
But experts now warn they could pose a threat to babies’ and childrens’ brains because of the way the chemicals are ingested by people.
The chemicals can be released from products by moving into surrounding air and dust, the researchers uncovered.
This dust transfers to the hands of people touching them, which is inadvertently consumed when people eat.
Babies and children are particularly vulnerable to this because of the amount they put their hands in their mouths.
Researchers found youngsters had higher concentrations of the dangerous chemicals in their system.
Brain development is most vulnerable in early ages, meaning the chemicals could have a worse effect on them than in adults.
Co-author Linda Birnbaum said: ‘Organophosphate esters threaten the brain development of a whole generation.
‘If we don’t stem their use now, the consequences will be grave and irreversible.’
Scientists are calling for industries to stop using the chemicals where their presence is not essential.
They recommend governments and industry invest in alternative technologies to reduce the flammability of electronic products.
Co-author Carol Kwiatkowski said: ‘Organophosphate esters in many products serve no essential function while posing a serious risk, especially to our children.
‘It’s urgent that product manufacturers critically reevaluate the uses of organophosphate ester flame retardants and plasticisers — many may be doing more harm than good.’
Source: Health & wellbeing | The Guardian