New research indicates that chemicals increasingly utilised as flame retardants and plasticizers may represent a greater risk to children’s brain development than previously believed.
Environmental Health Perspectives reported the study’s findings.
The research team examined dozens of human, animal, and cell studies and determined that even low amounts of the compounds called organophosphate esters may impair children’s intelligence, attention, and memory in ways that regulators have not yet considered.
While the neurotoxicity of organophosphate esters used as nerve agents and pesticides is well established, the neurotoxicity of those used as flame retardants and plasticizers has long been thought to be low.
As a result, they are widely utilised in electronics, car seats and other infant items, furniture, and construction materials to replace some phased-out or banned halogenated flame retardants. Nevertheless, the scientists’ investigation indicated that these compounds are neurotoxic as well, albeit via distinct modes of action.
“Organophosphate esters have been used in everything from televisions to car seats under the mistaken belief that they are safe,” said Heather Patisaul, lead author and neuroendocrinologist at North Carolina State University. “Unfortunately, these substances appear to be just as dangerous as the poisons they are meant to replace, albeit through a different mechanism of action.”
Organophosphate esters are constantly evaporating from products into the air and dust. Contaminated dust accumulates on our hands and is swallowed unwittingly when we eat. This is why these substances have been discovered in almost everyone who has been tested. Children are especially susceptible to hand-to-mouth behaviour.
As a result, babies and young children have significantly higher levels of these substances in their systems during the most susceptible stages of brain development.
“Organophosphate esters jeopardise a generation’s brain development,” co-author and retiring NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum remarked. “If we do not immediately put an end to their use, the effects will be severe and irreparable.”
The authors advocate for the elimination of all superfluous usage of organophosphate esters. This includes their use as flame retardants in consumer products, cars, and construction materials to comply with insufficient flammability requirements.
For applications where organophosphate esters are deemed necessary, the authors urge that governments and industry conduct alternatives analyses and invest in environmentally friendly alternatives.
“Organophosphate esters are found in a wide variety of products and pose a major risk, particularly to our children,” said Carol Kwiatkowski, co-author and Senior Associate for Science and Policy at the Green Science Policy Institute.
“It is vital that manufacturers rethink their use of organophosphate ester flame retardants and plasticizers—many may be doing more damage than good,” Kwiatkowski remarked.
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