The United States has a long, complex history with flame retardants.

In 1953, the Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA) was passed to regulate highly flammable fabrics, such as children’s pajamas, upholstery, carpets and certain textiles.

But in the 1970s, brominated and chlorinated flame retardants were identified as carcinogenic and mutagenic (causing mutations) in DNA. They were replaced with newer brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, but even the newer options were found to accumulate in the environment, in house dust, and in people and wildlife.

Today, data shows that these newer compounds can be carcinogenic (cancer causing), mutagenic (capable of inducing gene mutations), neurotoxic (brain damaging) and endocrine disrupting (interfering with the body’s hormones).

A recent University of California at Riverside study published in Scientific Reports shows that the flame retardants found in nearly every American home cause mice to give birth to offspring that become diabetic.

What are the flame retardants, and where are they?

The flame retardants in question are called PBDEs, and they’ve been linked to diabetes in adult humans.

Even though PBDEs have been banned from use in the US, they still are found in many items throughout your home -- including carpeting, furnishings, drapes, fabrics, bedding and small appliances -- because of inadequate recycling or in imported items and vintage pieces.

The authors of the study wanted to investigate whether human children of mothers who’ve been exposed to PBDEs are at higher risk for developing diabetes, so they tackled it in the mice population.

The mice mothers were given low levels of PBDE, comparable to average human exposure, while pregnant and while nursing. Researchers monitored both mothers and offspring. While some mice mothers did develop some glucose intolerance, all of the mice babies developed the hallmark signs of diabetes.

The study results indicate that chemicals like PBDEs can be transferred to offspring through a mother’s exposure. The next step will be investigating whether human babies exposed to PBDEs before birth and during breastfeeding also become diabetic children. This is of special concern because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report the incidence of type 1 diabetes is up 30% in 2020, with cases among children growing sharply.

Kids’ PJs, revisited

“There are two ways to avoid pajamas made of textiles treated with flame retardants,” explained dermatologist Erum Ilyas, MD, the CEO and founder of AmberNoon, a sun-protection clothing line without chemicals. She was not involved in the study.

“Children’s pajamas, for ages nine months to 14 years, must be made of flame-resistant fabrics if they fit loosely,” Dr. Ilyas told Medical Daily . One way to bypass the need to use these flame retardants is to ensure the fit is snug. “This prevents loose-hanging fabric at risk for exposure to flames, as well as reduces the oxygen build-up between the skin and the fabric, to reduce the overall flammability.”

Remember, the Flammable Fabrics Act was passed at a time when smoke detectors and other fire safety measures were not widely available.

To determine if your child’s pajamas contain these flame retardants, look for a yellow label that reads: “For child’s safety, garments should fit snugly. These garments are not flame resistant. Loose-fitting garments are more likely to catch fire.”

Another way to avoid flame retardants is to buy pajamas made of 100% polyester. “ Polyester is inherently flame resistant,” said Dr. Ilyas. The tags on these garments state “ flame resistant.”

“Although these endocrine and mutagenic flame retardants could potentially still be found in some pajamas, they are rarely used by manufacturers, as many have opted to ensure a snug fit or use polyester,” said Dr. Ilyas.

To reduce exposure to these chemicals, researchers suggest washing hands before eating, vacuuming frequently and buying furnishings, bedding and other home products that do not contain them.