Are Carpets & Computers Dispensing Timed-Release Birth Control Vapors?


Large carpeted room.. Image credit:Fopple

UC Berkeley researchers are reporting that exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - found in carpets, electronics, foam furniture and other common household items - is associated with "subfertility" in women. My first thought on reading the summary of the work was 'does this explain why there's such a booming business in fertility clinics serving the well-to-do?'

Parallel question: Who gets the highest lifestyle PBDE exposure boost: a big bonus earning bank exec or the lowly 'tree hugger?' The well-off live with uncommonly great areas of carpeting and many pieces of foam-filled, nylon covered furniture. They sleep on king-sized mattresses, and browse on the latest computers. And, at work, they frequent carpeted office suites and hallways - commonly spending much of the day next to a PC. All theses goodies are made largely of petrochemicals, and by regulatory necessity, all must be kept fire resistant. From UC Berkeley press release:

The researchers found that women with the highest concentrations of PBDEs in their blood experienced the longest delay in becoming pregnant, and each 10-fold increase in PBDE concentration was associated with a 30% decreased chance of becoming pregnant each month.
As I read on, it seemed my hypothetical question about exposure-related fertility differences between the elites and the rest of us would be unanswerable, given the demographic from which blood samples were taken:
Because the participants were mostly young, Mexican immigrant women who lived in an agricultural community, the researchers controlled for exposure to pesticides in their analysis. The researchers also controlled for other variables known to impact fertility, such as irregularity of menstrual cycles, frequency of intercourse, pre-pregnancy body mass index, use of birth control pills in the year before conception, smoking, and alcohol and caffeine consumption.
Getting at that question is particularly difficult in our culture. Someone pointed out, correctly I suppose, that the tested women could have worked in offices and homes owned by others, or in carpeted cushion-chaired restaurants, which would expose them almost as much as if they lived in homes of their own full of PBDE-treated materials.

The good news, as reported in an earlier post by Emma, is that by voluntary agreement, the U.S. Will Phase Out Cancerous Flame Retardant Chemical by 2013.


Plush office setting. Image credit:RobKron
Now for the bad news.


  • Products made with relatively hazardous PBDE's are still being manufactured and/or imported, and will be for a couple more years.

  • China will keep on cranking out PBDE-filled crap as long as they feel like it. And, if history is any guide, well after the government says to stop under threat of executive execution.

  • People commonly keep carpets and furniture for 10 or 15 years - sometimes a lot more.

  • Recycling does not necessarily reduce exposures to PDBEs. Manufacturers may have to add more flame retardant to recycled petrochemical fabrics.


What might the future bring?
Let's, for the sake of examining plausible future scenarios, assume that the UCB researchers are on to something real and that the voluntary industry cutbacks on production and use of PDBD's will reduce exposure to the most hazardous forms.

American society is not ready to live only with chairs filled with horse-hair ticking and all-woolen carpeting. There are hundreds of millions of us now, and not enough horses or sheep or shepherds to even contemplate it.

It is certainly possible that densely woven, animal hair-blend carpets and wool stuffed mattresses will see increased sales - especially among the well to do. Plant fiber carpeting is always a possibility; but fire proofing such products may still be an imperative.

Thus, Americans will continue to depend on the chemical industry to come up with reduced-hazard fire proofing treatments and additives for carpeting, furnishing, toys,and bedding materials.

My point is that bad-mouthing industry is non-productive. Immediate positive change can only come from personal life style choices.

Predetermined outcomes.
What will almost certainly happen, regardless of whether the research findings are fully corroborated by other workers is that:


  • petroleum will be recognized as having great intrinsic value as a source of feedstock for plastics and fibers - think electric car battery cases for example.

  • commensurate with increasing sales of electric vehicles, refineries will be "tipped" more toward producing naptha and less toward fuel output per gallon of oil.

  • fire protection codes will be revised in consideration of balancing fire risk with endocrine disruption potential.

  • computers with air-craft strength aluminum shells will become more common. (Good for multiple reasons - no fire retardant chemicals needed; no RF shielding coat needed; high per Kg value ensures recycling will take place at product end of life; greater strength to support ultra-thin designs like the iPAD; etc.)

  • For those who can afford it, sprinklers at home and at work are the answer.

  • Expect Congress to jump in with some solutions of their own if this issue 'catches fire.' FDA has no regulatory authority over fire protection. CPSC is overwhelmed with other Chinese-made crap so adding this issue to their in-box is not going to help much. EPA, working with Customs, currently manages treaty related restrictions on import of ozone depleters; so there is parallel experience. So, my bet is on EPA working in collaboration with Customs and with major retailers like Walmart and Target.

  • Fundamentalist outrage from several denominations....no further explanation needed. But, ask yourself, which political party generally opposed to environmental regulations is going to hear about it big time?

On a related topic, is there 'A Frog Disruptor In My Soap?'
More mattress and stuffing posts.
Used Mattress Design Competition: Making Mattresses Sustainable ...
What Lies Beneath: The Flat-Out Truth About Mattresses :
Vivétique Launches EcoDream Bed for Earth Day

Tags: Chemicals

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