Children exposed to retardant compounds are more likely to have low IQ, poor attention spans and learning problems, says a new study.

Researchers from University of California, Berkeley, found that polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a class of compounds that don't degrade easily and disrupt the endocrine system, were linked to learning problems in the children.

PBDEs are commonly found in foam furniture, electronics, carpets and upholstery. These chemicals leach out of the products and accumulate in the environment. Children can ingest these chemicals when they come in contact with dust.

PBDEs are structurally similar to thyroid hormones. These chemicals can alter the function of thyroid hormones leading to many adverse health effects including fetal and child brain development, according to Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health.

"This is the largest and most comprehensive study to date to examine neurobehavioral development in relation to body burden measures of PBDE flame retardants. We measured PBDEs both in the mothers during pregnancy and in the children themselves. It shows that there is a relationship of in utero and childhood levels to decrements in fine motor function, attention and IQ," said Brenda Eskenazi, lead author of the study.

The researchers collected blood samples taken from 279 women during pregnancy or at delivery, and from 272 of the children when they were 7 years old. Analyses of the blood samples were conducted at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

"This new study is very important because it confirms earlier published research on the neurodevelopmental effects of PBDE exposure," said Heather Stapleton, associate professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University. Stapleton was not part of the UC Berkeley study.

About five percent of the U.S. population has high exposure to these chemicals. So the health impact of these chemicals on children would be even greater, Stapleton added.

"Even though pentaPBDEs are not being used anymore, old couches with foam that is disintegrating will still release PBDEs These chemicals will be in our homes for many years to come, so it's important to take steps to reduce exposure," said Eskenazi in a press release.

To limit exposure:

  • Wash your hands regularly, especially children's hands must be thoroughly washed
  • Mop floors with damp cloth and vacuum regularly
  • Attend to any cracks or damage to furniture.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.