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Does This Flame Retardant Make Me Look Fat?

Lady weighing herself on a scale

Many people who are committed to finding safe, natural mattresses and furniture already know that chemical flame retardants are scary stuff.

Banned in Europe and in some U.S. states, hormone-altering (also called endocrine-disrupting) flame retardants have led many science headlines. Why? They’re implicated in increased risks for cancer, fertility problems, and developmental brain disorders.

If those risks seem remote, here’s an old-reliable motivator: vanity. The newest science suggests that endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as flame retardants may also be the real trigger behind the obesity epidemic. The association is becoming so clear that they’ve been dubbed obesogens.

Chemical flame retardants are the most common EDCs in most homes. They’re found in foam-filled furniture, in most kinds of mattresses (including memory foam) and pillows, in many fabrics, and in ordinary house dust. Released continuously indoors, they also build up in the human body. Nothing has escaped the global flood of these compounds — they’ve even been detected in marine mammals as well as in outdoor air.

Chemicals, Schmemicals

Because the most infamous flame retardant, PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl esters), is finally being phased out, many people shopping for new mattresses or furniture have been breathing sighs of relief. Unfortunately, however, what’s replacing PBDEs may be just as bad.

“Firemaster 550” has been introduced into the furniture and mattress industries as a substitute for PBDEs. It’s the second most common flame retardant in use today. This product is a mixture of several chemicals, including brominated phthalates and triphenyl phosphates. Scientists are not sure which individual chemical — or combination — might be responsible for its toxic effects.

Obesogens can change the way the body metabolizes and stores fat, ultimately leading to weight gain. An animal study recently showed that those exposed to Firemaster 550 during development were more anxious, and the females entered puberty earlier. But what most shocked the researchers was that the rat pups born to the exposed pregnant or nursing mothers also became fatter than normal, by startling amounts — and stayed that way:

Increased weight gain was observed after 10 days in the males and after 3 weeks — considered adolescence — in the females. At 3 weeks, the males were 59 percent fatter and the females were 31 percent fatter. The increased weight gain persisted into adulthood. At the end of 7 months, an age when rats are considered adults, the males were 32 percent fatter and the females were 22 percent fatter. Environmental Health News

Summing Up, Taking Action

One of the more succint and sobering responses to similar research came in a recent New York Times editorial. In his column “Warnings from a Flabby Mouse”, Nicholas Kristof stated, “…endocrine disruptors may be the tobacco of our time.”

When the body’s natural hormone balance is altered by exposure to environmental chemicals, even slightly, long-term cycles of damage can begin. And now, both childhood and adult obesity have been added to the risks on the radar.

It’s disheartening, for sure. But the good news is because now you know, you can begin to act. You may want to become involved in the politics of pollution. Or, you may be looking at your home environment in panic.

Don’t panic. Just start where you can. Even small steps will make a difference. Gradually ridding your home of synthetic foams, including memory foam, is the best way to begin. And the key place to begin is where you spend the most extended time — in the bedroom. Your natural bedroom — and your baby’s — will go a long way to reduce your family’s exposures to flame retardants and many other suspect chemicals.

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