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(CNN) --

Flame retardants added for decades to thousands of consumer products in the United States may increase the risk of dying from cancer, according to a new study.

According to the study, people with the highest levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in their blood had an approximately 300% greater risk of dying from cancer than people with the lowest levels.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the relationship between PBDE exposure and the risk of cause-specific mortality in the general US adult population," the authors wrote.

The new report analyzed levels of the chemicals in the blood of 1,100 people between 2003 and 2004 who were participating in the National Health and Nutrition Survey, a federal longitudinal study of the health of American citizens.

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The researchers then compared PBDE levels to death certificates 15 to 17 years later, according to the study published Monday in the journal JAMA Network Open. Although the study found a significant association between PBDEs and deaths from all types of cancer, the researchers could not determine specific types of cancer from the available data.

Previous research has found an association between flame retardants of different types and the possibility of cancer, but finding a relationship with cancer mortality is a breakthrough for science, said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, professor of pediatrics and population health. from NYU Langone Health in New York. Trasande was not involved in the study.


"The new study links PBDEs to cancer deaths, showing that the relationship between flame retardants and cancer mortality is real," says Trasande, who researches the impact of plastics, flame retardants and other substances. chemicals in children.

"And because these chemicals have a long half-life and therefore remain in the human body for years, this impact will continue because we cannot remove them from the environment overnight," he added.

Health Hazards of PBDEs

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers are known as endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with the body's hormones. These chemicals have been linked in studies to poor blood sugar metabolism, gestational diabetes, obesity, thyroid disease, some cancers, reproductive problems, and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Exposure to PDBEs is nothing new: according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the levels of these endocrine disruptors in the blood of most Americans are between three and ten times higher than those of Europeans.

Flame retardant chemicals can also pass to developing fetuses through the placenta and to newborns through breast milk, according to previous research.

Currently, PBDEs are the largest contributors to childhood intellectual disability, with a total loss of 162 million IQ points and more than 738,000 cases of intellectual disability, according to an August 2020 study.

How are you exposed to PBDEs?

Manufacturers use flame retardants in all types of padded products, such as sofas, loveseats, recliners, office chairs, automobile upholstery, baby car seats and some toys, as well as in the padding of carpets, mats foam-padded yoga mats and padded baby items.

Electronics and kitchen appliances may also be coated with these chemicals to reduce the possibility of fire.

Two types of PBDEs were voluntarily removed from the U.S. market in 2004. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not regulate decabromodiphenyl ether, or DecaBDE, a flame retardant linked to cancer used in textiles, televisions , computers, construction materials and imported items such as car parts, until January 2021.

In some cases, the industry has replaced these chemicals with newer phosphorus-based flame retardants, Trasande explained, adding that researchers are now concerned that these chemicals may also be linked to cancer.

Many of the older chemicals, including PBDE, are still present in old items such as sofa foam and carpet padding, but a key route of exposure is contamination: flame retardants have leached from the landfills for decades and have contaminated air, soil, groundwater, rivers and streams.

According to the CDC, exposure to these chemicals occurs through household dust and contaminated consumer products, as well as residues in foods, especially those with high fat content, such as fatty fish.

This is because once PBDEs are in the environment, they accumulate in the fat of animals. When one animal eats another, the concentration of chemicals increases. Since humans are at the top of the food chain, they have some of the highest concentrations of PBDEs.

"These flame retardants remain and are detectable in all Americans because we live in an environment where we use products to which these chemicals were added many years ago," explains Trasande.

According to the CDC, people who work in closed spaces where products containing PBDE are manufactured, repaired, or recycled are most at risk.

Although PBDE levels in fish have dropped by 75% over the past 20 years, this decline has slowed and researchers continue to find these chemicals in 93% of sampled fish, with an increase in some locations, according to a study. March study. In fact, the average levels found in fish in the United States are thousands of times higher than the environmental quality standards established by the European Parliament.

In a June 2017 study, scientists detected elevated levels of PBDEs in babies nearly a decade after their phasing out in 2004, said Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, a nonprofit association of defense of health and the environment.

"Some infants had PBDE levels higher than those of their mothers, illustrating that exposure to inherited chemicals does not disappear immediately after their elimination or ban," he says in an email.

How to protect your family

Despite the elimination of many of these chemicals, some manufacturers may still add flame retardants to padded items such as nursing pillows, changing table pads, crib mattresses, and nap and exercise mats, so check the flammability labels of these products, according to the EWG.

"It is difficult to buy a car seat without flame retardants and impossible to avoid these chemicals in car seats," the group states in a tip sheet.

Use a high-efficiency HEPA filter when vacuuming, experts say. Credit: scyther5/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Keep infant car seats, foam mattresses, and furniture cushions completely wrapped in protective fabric that is not treated with flame retardants, as broken, exposed foam allows chemicals to escape more quickly.

When reupholstering old sofas or chairs, be sure to replace the old foam with one that does not contain flame retardants. The same goes for carpet padding, which is often made from chemically treated waste foam; If you do it yourself, wear a mask and clean carefully, the EWG advises.

Damp mop and vacuum frequently, especially if there are children at home. Use a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency HEPA filter, which can trap dust and chemicals.