Calif. ban of chemical linked to low IQ has far-reaching effects, study shows

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If you purchased a couch before 2006, there’s a possibility it could be filled with foam containing the chemical polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) – a substance banned in California and phased out by manufacturers nationwide after it was linked to low IQ in children.

Fortunately, new research from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) indicates that the 2006 ban on the substance has had impressive, far-reaching effects, indicating that taking fast action against toxic substances can create huge benefits for human health.

“PBDEs became more in vogue as a substitute for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl ethers), which were banned in the 70s and used to reduce flammability,” Tracey Woodruff, the director of UCSF’s program on reproductive health and the environment, told “They’re found in computers (and) a lot in foam, polyurethane foam used in coaches, to decrease flammability.”

However, PBDEs quickly fell under scrutiny after studies started to show an association between exposure to the chemical and low IQ.  Further concern was raised when studies revealed that increasingly large quantities of PBDEs were appearing in women’s breast milk.

Spurred by this information, one of the major manufacturers of couches in the United States agreed to stop producing furniture containing PBDEs.

“They agreed to a voluntary phase out, and then the EPA did a regulatory backstop to eliminate new uses of these chemicals,” Woodruff said.

In a study published Sept. 25 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Woodruff and her fellow researchers sought to measure whether the ban on PBDEs had produced any measurable effects in humans. They compared the results of blood tests taken from 25 pregnant women between 2008 and 2009 with blood tests taken from 36 pregnant women, from a similar population, between 2011 and 2012.

Overall, researchers discovered that levels of PBDE found in the women’s blood had decreased by two-thirds between 2008 and 2012 – results that Woodruff found shocking.

“This chemical tends to hang around. Because of its structure, it doesn’t break down fast in the environment or people. You can carry it around like bad baggage for a while,” said Woodruff, the study’s lead author. “What I was surprised about was the decrease was in a relatively short time frame for this particular chemical…It speaks to what you can do with an intervention that happens at the source.”

Moving forward, Woodruff and her colleagues hope to explore whether or not the ban on PCBEs has had measurable effects on children’s IQ.

“We’d like to do a more thorough review of that…to calculate the benefits of the decline of PBDE in the population,” Woodruff said. “It’s part of a larger story about how if you have an environmental chemical, and you know it’s out there and linked to an adverse health effect, by reducing it you can get measurable health benefits.”

Furthermore, researchers want to make sure that PBDEs haven’t been replaced with other equally toxic chemicals. Woodruff noted that one of the problems the United States faces in regards to toxic chemical regulation is that it is monitored by a back-end approach.

“We use the chemical, lots of people got exposed, then we find out it was a problem, and then we ban it,” Woodruff said. “What would be better is we look at the chemical, test the health risks and then make a decision whether to have it on the market.”

According to Woodruff, changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act, which governs the use of chemicals on the marketplace, are currently being debated in Washington.

“I think that (changes) would be a great benefit to the public health, because the goal is to make it so that when chemicals come onto the marketplace, we aren’t scrambling to figure out if it’s going to be a problem,” Woodruff said. “Because then it’s too late; people have been exposed.”