Researchers at the University of California have found a link between chemicals used to reduce fire risk on household items and lower birth weights. Researchers noted that the study pool was comprised of mostly average birth weight babies. A few of the babies weighed less than the “low birth weight” limit set at 5.5 pounds. However, infants exposed to the fire retardant PBDE, were more likely to weight less than infants with less exposure. 

PBDEs gained popularity in the 1970s. By 2004, the chemical was being replaced by newer flame retardants, but many furniture and household items are still in homes today. Even home furnishings like couches and chairs may be treated with PBDEs. 

A total of 286 women participated in the study. Most of the women were of Latino decent, but that did not play an important factor in birth weight measurements. Researchers took into account all factors that would alter birth weight, including BMI of the mother and smoking/drinking habits. 

Infants with the highest concentration of PBDEs weighed between 115 grams and 250 grams less than infants with lower blood concentrations. The presence of PBDEs is important because the chemical can exist in dust in the home. So even if older furniture and household items are replaced, dust may linger for years to come. Researchers suggest wet mopping instead of dry mopping and washing hands often. It is especially important to wash hands before eating or drinking. 

Children with lower than average birth weights tend to be at greater risk for developmental delays. While PBDEs are not commonly used today, newer chemicals could pose risk as well. Researchers have not fully tested newer household flame retardants. 

Source: Jonathan Chevrier, Raul Aguilar Schall and Asa Bradman from CERCH; and Andreas Sjödin. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1 September, 2011.