Replacement flame retardant chemicals linked to preterm birth, new study finds

A new study finds a link between premature birth and exposure to organophosphate ester flame retardants, or OPEs, used in furniture and foam for mattresses and more. The study also found the risk of preterm birth was greater for pregnant people who gave birth to female babies.

Preterm birth is the leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity. Reducing environmental factors that increase risk of prematurity, like OPE exposure, can improve children’s health. 

The peer-reviewed study, published recently in Environmental Health Perspectives, was led by a large team of scientists from the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes Program. It included 6,646 pregnant people from across the United States, the largest health study of OPEs to date. 

Some flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants were phased out of use in furniture, mattresses and baby products in the mid-2000s, due to concerns about their toxicity. Companies started to use replacements, including OPEs.

OPEs are commonly used as flame retardants in furniture and electronics. OPEs can also help make plastic more flexible and are used in vinyl flooring, children’s toys, and in personal care products, including nail polish. These chemicals are not chemically bound to the products they are added to and leach off into the air and dust. 

Greater risk of preterm birth

The authors looked at the association between nine different OPEs measured in urine and the risk of preterm birth. They reported that three of these OPEs were found in 85 percent of participants – meaning that exposure to these chemicals is common in pregnant people. 

The risk of preterm birth differed by the type of OPE. For one of the highly detected OPEs, a composite of dibutyl phosphate and di-isobutyl phosphate, a doubling in the amount of this OPE in a person’s urine was associated with odds of preterm birth that were 7 percent higher.

Health risks from one exposure

Hazardous chemicals in furniture and foam have come under increased scrutiny in recent years due to concerns about how they harm human health.

Furniture manufacturers are not required to disclose the materials they use in their products to comply with U.S. flammability standards. The Environmental Protection Agency pledged to phase out two brominated flame retardants. Now, as an interim step, new manufacturers must disclose when importing these chemicals. But they are not explicitly banned.

Despite these types of flame retardants being phased out due to concerns about their toxicity, their replacement, OPEs, were not evaluated for safety before they were used. 

After OPEs enter our body, they are quickly excreted, usually within hours. Although they do not stay in the body long, OPEs have still been associated with several health harms, including infant health and reduced child neurodevelopment and impaired thyroid function.

In December 2023, the EPA noted that one of the OPEs evaluated in this study “presents an unreasonable risk of injury to human health and the environment.”

These chemicals are not the only harmful substances being used as flame retardants. Fiberglass has also been used as a flame retardant in mattresses and upholstered furniture. It can enter the air, creating a potential inhalation hazard, as well as causing irritation to the skin and eyes. Last October, California banned fiberglass for use in mattresses and other upholstered furniture. The bill was sponsored by EWG.

Safer alternatives can take the place of these hazardous chemicals in furniture. These include wool, rayon and polylactic acid batting, which can be used to meet fire safety standards. The need for flame retardants in electronics is less clear, though New York has banned some of these chemicals from being used in electronics. 

Reducing exposure to flame retardants

Some steps you can take to reduce your potential exposure to flame retardants:

  • Support legislation that bans harmful chemicals in your furniture. A 2021 study by EWG authors found that the bans on flame retardants in upholstered furniture in California and other states help to reduce flame retardant levels in the home.
  • Shop for a mattress or crib mattress that uses safer alternatives. Look for a mattress from a company that’s transparent about what it uses to meet fireproofing requirements and the other materials in their products. Use EWG’s Guide to Healthy Living for tips to healthy purchases and look for our new EWG VERIFIED® mattresses for the highest level of confidence. 
  • Regular cleaning can help reduce chemical exposures in the home. Flame retardants dissociate from products they are added to and can end up in household dust. See EWG’s Guide to Removing Household Dust
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