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Researchers say toxic chemicals can be found in electronics, furniture, and even some food. Getty Images
  • Researchers say the number of health issues from cases of childhood exposure to heavy metals is declining.
  • However, they say there’s an increasing number of cases involving flame retardants and pesticides lowering a child’s IQ.
  • Some states have banned flame retardants in some children’s products.
  • Experts say you can help protect your child by checking labels, replacing foam in older furniture, and cleaning up dust particles with a wet mop or vacuum.

Your baby’s car seat, your upholstered furniture, your household electronics, and even some of the foods you eat could harbor toxic chemicals dangerous to children.

So dangerous they can decrease a child’s IQ.

That’s the conclusion of a study published today in the journal Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology.

Researchers from New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine said their results showed both positive and negative news.

They said health issues from childhood exposure to heavy metals such as lead and mercury are declining in the United States, likely because of decades of strict regulation.

That was the good news.

But the researchers said there are two growing threats: flame retardants and pesticides.

The researchers found that flame retardants alone caused 738,000 children to lose 162 million IQ points between 2001 and 2016.

“We have made good progress, but we still have a ways to go. Toxic exposures still pose a risk” Abigail Gaylord, MPH, the study’s lead investigator and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone, told Healthline.

The researchers studied information from national databases spanning a 16-year period.

They analyzed the blood samples of women of childbearing age and children 5 years and younger. Using previous studies, they estimated the IQ loss for each of the chemicals they were tracking.

They discovered that the proportion of IQ loss due to exposure to flame retardants and pesticides increased from 67 percent to 81 percent.

Experts say these toxins can disrupt brain and kidney function. They can also interfere with the thyroid, which secretes brain developing hormones.

Exposure at a young age may cause learning disabilities, autism, and behavioral problems.

The researchers also calculated the economic costs of the IQ losses.

Overall, they said childhood exposures cost the United States more than $7 trillion in lost economic productivity and other societal factors.

“It’s costing us money not to decrease these exposures,” Gaylord said. “Regulation would save the country money.”

“It’s really compelling to attach an economic dollar amount to show the burden of chemical exposure to children,” Tasha Stoiber, PhD, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, told Healthline.

“Industries often argue that the cost of regulation hinders business and it costs way too much,” Dr. Stoiber said. “But this study shows reducing children’s exposure benefits society on the order of billions of dollars.”

“Unfortunately, the minimal policies in place to eliminate pesticides and flame retardants are clearly not enough,” Gaylord said.

The warnings have been around for a while.

A similar study on the effect of flame retardants conducted by Harvard Medical Researchers was published in 2013.

In 2017, researchers at the University of California San Francisco also found sufficient evidence to establish a link between flame retardants and lower IQ in children.

A handful of states have restricted the use of flame retardants. California’s new law banning all flame retardants in children’s products, mattresses, and upholstered furniture goes into effect this year.

There’s no ban at the federal level.

In 2015, a coalition of health and consumer groups petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban flame retardants in infant and toddler products, upholstered furniture, mattresses, and the plastic casing of any electronic device.

In September 2017, the commission voted to grant the petition, convene an advisory panel, and publish guidelines.

Where does it stand now?

The agency says it’s working with the National Academy of Sciences to develop a plan for assessing health risks.

Experts offer these tips on how to help protect yourself and your children from toxic exposure:

  • Check labels. Manufacturers are required to list flame retardants.
  • Replace the foam in older pieces of furniture.
  • Clean dust particles with a wet mop or a vacuum.
  • Be careful if you use pesticides.
  • Switch to organic foods. See this shopping guide provided by the Environmental Working Group.

The NYU study focused on four toxic chemicals.

However, a report published last month in Environmental Health Perspectives says there are more chemicals to worry about.

“We simply lack data to know how they may be affecting child health,” said Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, a professor at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), one of the report authors, and director of the program on reproductive health and the environment at UCSF.

“It’s an under-researched problem” Dr. Woodruff told Healthline.

“Biomedical research focuses on treatment, which is important,” she said. “But there is less spent on prevention, particularly as it relates to children. And there is even less spent on environmental contributors to disease.”