According to a researcher from Rutgers Health, pregnant women exposed to certain classes of flame retardant chemicals may have an increased risk of preterm birth, especially for girls, or higher birth weight.
Emily Barrett, professor and deputy chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health and a member of the Rutgers Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, participated in a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives and funded by the National Institutes of Health’s ECHO (Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes) program.
Manufacturers often use organophosphate esters (OPEs) in products like furniture, baby items, electronics, clothing, and building materials to prevent fires and make plastics more flexible. People can come into contact with OPEs in various ways, including by swallowing or inhaling indoor dust or through skin absorption.
Over the past decade, OPEs have been increasingly used as flame retardants after polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants were phased out due to health risks. ECHO researchers wanted to determine how these now widely used OPE chemicals could impact pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth and birth weight.
This is another unfortunate case where new chemicals have been introduced into consumer products without really understanding the health implications. Now that we know OPE exposure is linked to negative birth outcomes, we need to ask ourselves, „What downstream effects does this have on children’s health?“
Emily Barrett, co-author of the study, professor and deputy chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health
ECHO researchers found that more than 85% of study participants had three specific markers of OPE exposure in their bodies. These three substances – diphenyl phosphate (DPHP), a combination of dibutyl phosphate and diisobutyl phosphate (DBUP/DIBP), and bis(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate – were associated with shorter pregnancies and a higher risk of preterm birth only in female infants. In male infants, higher DPHP concentrations were associated with longer pregnancies.
Babies born to mothers with detectable concentrations of three other OPE markers – bis(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate, bis(2-methylphenyl) phosphate, and dipropyl phosphate – tended to have higher birth weights compared to those whose mothers had no detectable amounts of these substances. Babies with higher birth weight may have a higher risk of jaundice, breathing problems, or congenital disorders.
Overall, the researchers measured nine OPE markers in urine samples collected from 6,646 pregnant participants at 16 ECHO cohort study sites, often during their third or second trimesters. The researchers assessed birth outcomes, including duration of pregnancy and birth weight, based on medical records or parental reports.
„These substances typically remain in the body for a short period of time, usually only hours to days,“ said Deborah Bennett of the University of California, Davis, who led the study. „Performing more comprehensive studies with different urine tests can help us understand how these substances may be related to birth outcomes.“
Oh, J., et al. (2024). Associations of Organophosphate Ester Flame Retardant Exposures During Pregnancy with Gestational Duration and Fetal Growth: The Environmental influences on Child Health (ECHO) program. Environmental Health Perspectives. doi.org/10.1289/ehp13182.