Tests on pregnant women in California have shown some of the highest blood levels of a toxic flame retardant ever recorded worldwide.

The study, by researchers at University of California, San Francisco, evaluated 25 Northern and Central California women in their second-trimester of pregnancy. It found that their average blood levels of PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, were two or three times higher than ever reported for any other population of pregnant women.

The levels were up to 100 times higher than found in some European populations.

Large amounts of PBDEs were used in furniture in the United States, particularly in California, to meet a state flammability standard adopted in the 1970s requiring furniture to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds.

By 2004 PBDEs were largely banned in California, as well as in Europe. But they still are commonly found in older couches, crib mattresses and children’s car seats, along with electronic products.

U.S.-born minority and low-income women are believed to be more likely to be exposed to the toxic chemicals, which can damage the liver, thyroid and nerve development. That likely is because they are more apt to use secondhand furniture or live in housing with poor ventilation.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the flame retardants eventually are released into the air and become dust as furniture breaks down. The chemicals have even ended up in the food supply and entered the bloodstream of children.

An official with the industry group the American Chemistry Council said the problem should abate over time because “potential exposure routes are likely to become even more limited as older products containing these particular chemicals are replaced.”

But researchers say flame retardants are being replaced with other chemicals that in many cases are structurally similar and have not been thoroughly tested.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.


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