A new study from researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) offers additional evidence that exposure to PBDE flame retardants is associated with lower intelligence and hyperactivity in children.

Last summer Environmental Defence tested the umbilical cord blood of three newborns from the GTA for traces of toxic chemicals like mercury and flame retardants (chemicals that are supposed to resist burning). Out of the 310 chemicals tested for, a total of 137 were found in the three babies. Sadly, even the banned pesticide DDT turned up in one of the samples. But what does prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals mean for infant health?

For the new SFU study, health sciences professor Bruce Lanphear and colleagues tested expectant mothers in early pregnancy, and followed the children to age 5. The researchers found that a ten-fold increase in PBDE exposure was linked to a 4.5 point decrease in IQ. These results suggest that PBDE exposure may be similar to the threat posed by lead when it comes to prenatal exposure.

PBDE is short for polybrominated diphenyl ether. A flame retardant might sound like a good idea for furniture, but studies have called their effectiveness into question, and it has been shown that many flame retardants cause the smoke from fires to be even more toxic when inhaled. Firefighters have higher rates of certain cancers than the general population, and chemical exposures may be a big part of the reason.

There are several types of PBDE flame retardants, and many of them are being phased out. Manufacturers can no longer import most PBDEs to put into the things they are making, but it is still legal in Canada to import products that contain these chemicals. Unfortunately, PBDEs are persistent in the environment, and stick around in house dust.

So what can you do to reduce your exposure? Here are some tips:


-Keep house dust at bay with a damp cloth or mop

-Vacuum regularly with a machine that has a HEPA filter.

-Don’t eat while sitting on the couch as this can increase your exposure via ingestion of dust (unless you are certain your couch is PBDE free)

-Shopping for furniture? Ask the retailer or manufacturer about flame retardant-free alternatives

Some textiles are inherently flame resistant, without nasty PBDEs. Wool, cotton and jute are good examples of naturally flame resistant materials. You don’t need PBDEs in your couch.


Consider supporting our petition to ask for stricter controls on chemicals like PBDEs in Canada. Sign it and share it with a friend, and check out our tips and guides for reducing exposure to harmful chemicals in the home.