WASHINGTON - They sit in our homes like beloved antiques from the disco era. But there is good reason to avoid those old foam-stuffed couches.
These slightly ratty pieces of furniture likely contain a certain class of flame retardant that came into common use in the ‘70s and was phased out, nationwide, about a decade ago.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers -- or PBDEs -- fell out of favor quickly after research linked these compounds to developmental disabilities in young children who were exposed to the chemicals in the womb.
Concern was especially high in California, where pregnant women had some of the highest levels of PBDEs in their blood. As a result, California banned PBDEs in 2003 and the federal government negotiated a phase-out of their use in 2004.
The good news is the regulation of PBDEs brought immediate, positive results. The bad news is the problem, while lessened in severity, remains.
Ami Zota, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, has been researching the health implications of PBDEs for years. She recently led a study at the University of California, San Francisco that looked at the impact of the crackdown on PBDEs.
The researchers took blood samples from pregnant women in the Bay Area and found a 65 percent decline in PBDE levels over a three-year period.
"The significance and magnitude of the change that we saw was fairly robust," says Zota, whose results were reported in Environmental Science and Technology.
But she says while the reduction is substantial, PBDEs produced before the phase- out remain a threat, much like two other outlawed chemicals: Polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs) and DDT.
"They do not easily break down, either in the environment or in our bodies," Zota says.
PBDEs live on in those old pieces of furniture, for example, and can be found in the air and dust in homes. Zota says PBDEs are also "fat-loving chemicals."
"So they get stored in our fat, they end up in breast milk, they end up in our food supply," she says.
Her research findings suggest that after a rapid decline, PBDE exposure may hit a plateau that lingers for decades to come. She says prevention can help lower the risk somewhat, and offers a few suggestions, including repairing old couches so there are not rips and upholstered foam showing, wet mopping to minimize dust and eating low on the food chain to reduce intake of foods that are higher in animal fat.
However, Zota acknowledges that only so much can be done to minimize the risk for exposure. Rather, she says it's time to rethink both the way chemicals are regulated and the way the flammability of consumer products is addressed.
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