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Household Chemicals Can Affect Fertility in Women


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, say that flame-retardant chemicals that are present in many household consumer products like computers, fabrics, carpet padding, and plastics reduce a woman's chances of becoming pregnant.

According to the new findings, the chemicals called PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) leech out through dust on surfaces after what they can be inhaled and then stored in human fat cells. The experts found that women with high levels of PBDE were between 30 per cent and 50 per cent less likely to conceive every month when compared to women with lower PBDE levels.

Kim Harley, an associate director of the Center for Children's Environmental Health Research at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, and her colleagues measured PBDE levels in blood samples of 223 pregnant women, all living in California. Many of the women were young Mexican immigrants in an agricultural community. Their blood analysis took into consideration exposure to pesticides and other factors that could affect chances of becoming pregnant. The results revealed that the women who were actively trying to conceive a child were half as likely to get pregnant in any given month if they had high levels of PBDE in their blood. The experts were able to develop a model that ruled out the effect of pesticide exposure.

Nearly all of U.S. residents (97 per cent) have detectable PBDEs in their blood, which is 20 times higher than people from Asia and Europe, the experts said. This latest study is the first to address the impact of chemicals on human fertility, and the results are surprisingly strong, said Kim Harley and added that Californians have particularly high levels of PBDEs, most likely because of the state's relatively strict flammability laws. The women in the study, however, had lower levels than the general population because most had grown up in Mexico, where exposure to PBDEs is limited.

The study does not conclusively state that fertility is affected by the chemicals. So far, most research on the effects of PBDEs has been done in animals, and found that the chemicals can impair neurodevelopment, reduce thyroid hormones, and alter levels of sex hormones.

PBDE chemicals are used in foam furniture, electronics, fabrics, carpets, plastics and other items. They became common decades ago in the United States when fire safety standards were adopted. They are being phased out nationwide but some are still found in products made before 2004. The Environmental Protection Agency banned two of the three mixtures of PBDE developed for commercial use as flame retardants in 2005, and the third version is set to be phased out of production in 2013.

The study is published online in the latest issue of the Environmental Health Perspectives journal.

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