Exposure to flame-retardant chemicals may affect pregnancy outcomes

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According to a Rutgers Health researcher, pregnant women exposed to certain classes of flame-retardant chemicals, especially for baby girls, may be at increased risk of preterm birth or higher birth weight.

Emily Barrett, vice chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health and a member of the Rutgers Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, participated in a study that was published in Environmental Health Perspectives and funded by the Environmental Effects on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program at the National Institutes of Health.

Manufacturers commonly use organophosphate esters (OPEs) in products such as furniture, baby items, electronics, clothing and construction materials to resist fire and make plastics more flexible. People can be exposed to OPEs in a number of ways, including swallowing or inhaling household dust or absorbing it through the skin.

Over the past decade, OPEs have been increasingly used as flame retardants after polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants were phased out due to health risks. The ECHO researchers wanted to learn how these now more widespread OPE chemicals might affect pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth and birth weight.

This is another sad case where new chemicals were introduced into consumer products without understanding their health effects. Now knowing that OPE exposure is associated with adverse birth outcomes, we must ask ourselves, ‘What are the downstream effects on the health of children?’

Emily Barrett, co-author of the study, is professor and vice chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health.

ECHO researchers found that more than 85% of study participants had three specific markers of OPE exposure in their bodies. All three of these substances – diphenyl phosphate (DPHP), dibutyl phosphate and di-isobutyl phosphate (DBUP/DIBP) and a combination of bis (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate – were associated with lower pregnancy and higher risk of childbirth. Only female babies are born. In male children, higher concentrations of DPHP were associated with longer gestation.

Babies born to mothers with detectable levels of three other OPE markers – bis(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate, bis(2-methylphenyl) phosphate and dipropyl phosphate – had higher birth weights than mothers without. Detectable levels of this substance. Those with a higher birth weight may be more likely to develop jaundice, respiratory problems, or birth defects.

Researchers measured a total of nine OPE markers in urine samples collected from 6,646 pregnant participants across 16 ECHO cohort study sites, often during their third or second trimester. Researchers assessed birth outcomes, including length of gestation and birth weight, using medical records or parental reports.

“These substances stay in the body for a short time, usually a few hours to days,” said Deborah Bennett of the University of California, Davis, who led the study. “Conducting more thorough studies with different urine tests may help us understand how they may be associated with birth outcomes.”


Journal Reference:

Oh, J. etc (2024). Association of organophosphate ester flame retardant exposure during pregnancy with gestational age and fetal growth: the Environmental Effects on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program. Environmental Health Perspectives. doi.org/10.1289/ehp13182.

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