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Although not often studied, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have made it into the headlines recently due to serious health concerns. PBDEs are found in furniture, carpeting, bedding, textiles, electronics and plastics where they work to reduce the chance of a fire starting and, if a fire does start, slow down the rate at which it burns. But this type of flame retardant can also be found in soil, sediment, food, air and household dust. Almost all Americans have detectable levels in their bodies. The chemical seemed to pose no real threat, however, until new research surfaced, claiming that, among other things, PBDEs can effect female reproduction. A report by researchers, published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that each tenfold increase in the blood concentration of PBDEs was linked to a 30% decrease in the probability of becoming pregnant. Furthermore, the report claims that "animal studies suggest that prenatal PBDE exposure may result in adverse neurodevelopmental effects." So, though flame-retardant chemicals have been cited for saving lives, studies show that the life-saving chemicals may in fact be harming people's health. Though more research is needed, initial findings indicate that the benefits of PBDEs may come at a high cost.
Emily Holbrook is the founder of Red Label Writing, LLC, a writing, editing and content strategy firm catering to insurance and risk management businesses and publications, and a former editor of Risk Management.