Don't Pardon the Dust

Stapleton brings national scrutiny of flame retardants in household products.

On the long list of things parents worry about harming their kids, a little dust in the nursery seems pretty innocuous. But for Heather Stapleton, it’s a clue to a subtler threat—one that, thanks in part to her research, is getting new attention.

Stapleton, an associate professor of environmental chemistry in the Nicholas School of the Environment, has spent the past six years analyzing household dust samples for the presence of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a class of chemicals widely used to reduce the flammability of household products. Accumulation of PBDEs in the environment has been linked to infertility and thyroid problems, as well as impaired motor and brain development in early childhood. Stapleton’s research indicates the chemicals (and other flame retardants) are alarmingly ubiquitous, showing up in an array of electronics, furniture, and clothing. According to Stapleton, up to 80 percent of baby products sold in the U.S.—including car seats, crib mattresses, sleep positioners, and nursing pillows— contain PBDEs.

“To date I have not found one dust sample that does not contain PBDEs,” says Stapleton. “Every home we have tested contains PBDEs, and the levels in indoor dust can vary by a factor of a million.”

Although industry has vowed to phase out PBDEs by 2013, Stapleton—herself a mother of two young children—is concerned about the potential health effects of flame-retardant chemicals that may replace them. In July, she appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works to argue for more assertive regulation—including requiring manufacturers to label flame-retardant chemicals applied to products—to reduce children’s exposure.

“As both a scientist and a mother, it is important to me that I reduce my family’s exposure to these chemicals,” she told the committee.

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