Most new parents are familiar with “child-proofing” and make an effort to keep rooms safe for young children to explore. We worry about choking hazards, things that can fall and hurt them, toxic chemicals in household cleaning products, and electrical sockets. But what about the very place your child sleeps at night? Did you know that many of the chemicals used in flame retardants on conventional crib and bed mattresses and even in children’s pajamas can be toxic to some children? Did you know that there are safer nontoxic alternatives?
Most of the widely used chemical flame retardants contain Bromine, which has been proven to have toxic effects on animals and possibly humans. The chemicals used, known as PBDEs have been banned in 3 states and several countries. Why is this information not widely known and how come these chemicals were allowed in the first place? Before the wide use of industrial sprinkler systems (now required in most multi-family dwellings), furniture, textile, and electronics manufacturers were required by law to use flame retardants for certain consumer products to reduce the chances of fires spreading, with a goal of preventing uneccesary deaths. At the time, the chemicals were believed to be non-harmful to humans. What was not known at the time, were the effects of these chemicals on young infants and children, whose nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems (the 3 systems most likely to be disrupted by PBDEs) are still developing.
Over the past few decades, new animal research has shown that these chemicals are toxic to young, developing animals and would likely have the same effects on young humans. One of the key concerns is that these chemicals are not easily excreted by all people, and instead, can accumulate in the tissues leading to serious health problems. Obviously, a smaller person is at a higher risk of accumulating a toxic level of these chemicals. It doesn’t help that young children are also more susceptible to the health consequences of these toxins. Some researchers suggest that even a single exposure at the right time during development, can have serious consequences.
What are the toxic effects associated with Brominated flame retardants? There is quite a variety, ranging from behavior issues and learning disabilities, to thyroid disruption and infertility. PBDEs can cause harm in utero and also get through breastmilk, so pregnant and breastfeeding moms should limit their exposure as much as possible.
I’m sure many parents still reading this article are wondering what they can do if their child has already been exposed and is exhibiting some symptoms that may be a result of toxic exposure. The answer is to have your child evaluated by a healthcare professional who knows how to test for environmental exposures and how to appropriately detoxify the body. Most Naturopaths are trained to recognize the impact of environmental toxins and can order special lab tests to determine if toxicity is an issue for your child. Depending on their expertise, they can treat your child or refer you to an Environmental Medicine specialist. Many conventional doctors are not familiar with testing for exposure to environmental toxins beyond certain heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, which is why seeking out a Naturopath or other specialist is important. The earlier your child is treated for toxic exposures, the better their overall prognosis will be and the less likely they will have permanent or long-lasting health issues resulting from toxic exposure to PBDEs.
So, what can be used instead of chemical flame retardants? Many natural fiber mattresses (cotton or wool) are naturally flame retardant and do not require the use of additional chemicals. These materials can be a bit more expensive than conventional foam mattresses, but are overall, a much healthier choice for your child. Also, PJs that are designed to be tight-fitting, usually do not have any chemical flame retardants used (and come with a warning label that they should be tight fitting since they don’t contain flame retardant!). Other sources of PBDEs in your household include TVs, computer monitors, circuit boards, insulation in electrical appliances, furniture upholstery and draperies, and electrical cords and cables.
As of April, 2007 PBDEs have been banned in Washington state. Of course, this does not mean children cannot be exposed, since mattresses purchased before the ban or from another state may still contain the harmful chemicals. Maine and California have also passed partial bans on PBDEs as have most of the countries in the EU. For more information about PBDEs, please refer to the following links:
About the Author: Dr. Bowker is a Naturopathic Physician and owner of Snohomish Valley Holistic Medicine. In addition to her clinical practice, Dr. Bowker serves as a Board member for the Washington Association of Naturopathic Physicians. She has also been a guest speaker for community organizations and instructor of several community health classes. For more information, please visit her primary website: www.snovalleyholistic.com