These chemicals are everywhere, and they may be adversely affecting our children.

pregnant woman in black and white
Credit: FOAP

They're found in polyurethane foams in sofas and upholstery, in carpet pads, electronics, some textiles, fast-food wraps, some cleaning products, and non-stick cookware. Synthetic flame retardants, also known as PBDEs, and chemicals used to ensure durability, or PFASs, then enter the air we breathe, as well as the water we drink, and the soil in which we plant crops through everyday wear and tear on these products.

During pregnancy, exposure to these chemicals has been linked to toxic effects on a baby's developing nervous system. And now, new research out of the University of Cincinnati has linked prenatal exposure to flame retardants and other chemicals to cognitive and behavioral delays in children.

The study, published this week in Environmental Research, looked at levels of PBDEs and PFASs in 256 pregnant moms, and then evaluated their kids at age 5 and then again at age 8. Researchers wanted to understand how exposure to these chemicals impacts a child's executive function, responsible for things like focus, memory, the delegation of tasks, and emotional control.

Ann Vuong, DrPH, at the University of Cincinnati in the Department of Environmental Health, explains what they discovered: "The findings suggest that maternal serum concentrations of PBDEs and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), one of the most commonly found PFASs in human blood, may be associated with poorer executive functioning in school-age children." She added, "Given the persistence of PBDEs and PFASs in the environment and in human bodies, the observed deficits in executive function may have a large impact at the population level."

So what does this mean for you—pregnant, sitting on your couch, eating popcorn out of a bag that potentially contains dangerous chemicals, drinking a glass of water, and um, breathing? Well, these toxic substances have been the subject of debate for years. Health and environmental advocates have long decried PFASs for being linked to birth defects in animals. But companies that use them say they're safe. So what gives?

You can try to avoid buying products that contain synthetic flame retardants and PFASs; but it may take years before changes are made in how certain products are produced. It seems the best we can do for now is make smart buying decisions, and if you feel so passionately inclined, lobby your congressperson to get some larger-scale changes made.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.