A mother’s exposure to flame retardants while pregnant linked to children’s reading problems

Could exposure to flame retardants impair a child’s reading? — Picture courtesy of Tashi-Delek / IStock.com
Could exposure to flame retardants impair a child’s reading? — Picture courtesy of Tashi-Delek / IStock.com

NEW YORK, Jan 15 — New US research has found that children who are exposed to flame retardants in the womb may have an increased risk of reading problems in childhood.

Carried out by researchers from Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, the new small-scale study looked at 33 five-year-old children who were all beginners in reading.

To analyse the children’s in utero exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which is a type of flame retardant known to have a negative effect on brain development, the researchers looked at blood samples taken from the mothers during pregnancy.

The children also underwent MRIs scans and had their reading assessed to spot any reading problems.

The findings, published in the journal Environmental International, showed that children with a better-functioning reading network in the brain had less problems with reading.

In addition, the team also found that children who had had a greater exposure to PDBEs in the womb had a less efficient reading network.

However, greater exposure to PDBEs did not appear to affect the function of another brain network, which is involved in social processing and been linked with psychiatric disorders such as autism spectrum disorder.

The researchers point out that the use of PBDEs has now been banned, however, exposure to them is still common as they continue to be released from existing products, such as fabrics, furniture and electronics.

The researchers say that an estimated two million children in the USA have learning disorders, and of these, about 80 per cent have a reading disorder. Genetics appears to account for about 60 per cent of instances of reading disorders, but exposure to neurotoxicants, including PBDEs, may be an overlooked risk factor for reading problems, say the researchers. They also note that previous research found that PBDE exposure is linked with reading problems in eight-year-old children.

“Since social processing problems are not a common aspect of reading disorders, our findings suggest that exposure to PDBEs doesn’t affect the whole brain — just the regions associated with reading,” says researcher Amy Margolis, PhD.

“Our findings suggest that the effects of exposure are present in the brain before we can detect changes in behaviour,” adds Margolis. “Future studies should examine whether behavioural interventions at early ages can reduce the impact of these exposures on later emerging reading problems. — AFP-Relaxnews

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