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Health Spotlight: Research links flame retardants to teen anxiety

(WISH) — Flame retardants were initially added to products to keep kids safe.

Now, years after exposure, a surprising health risk for kids has been found.

Scientists have known for years that moms’ experiences and exposures during pregnancy can impact unborn babies. New research sheds light on the connection between exposure to toxic chemicals in the womb, and teen anxiety.

With COVID-19 isolation, social media and bullying, childhood anxiety has been on the rise for years. Nearly 1 in 3 teens ages 13-18 will experience anxiety.

While researchers are learning more about psychological risk factors for anxiety, they know little about environmental factors such as toxins. Scientists are examining a class of chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. The flame retardants have been banned but were used in common household products including “chairs, foam, cushions, carpets, car seats,” said Dr. Jeffrey Strawn, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

Researchers enrolled 460 pregnant women to study the relationship between exposure to the flame retardants and their children’s mental health. Strawn said, “It started, you know, roughly during the second trimester, and then, these children have been followed over time.”

Researchers say exposure to the chemicals happened during a critical time in pregnancy when the nerve cells in the brain were being formed and migrating to new areas of the brain.

“Exposure during that period was associated with a small but a significant increase in anxiety,” Strawn said.

The doctor says the study showed the chemicals increased anxiety in teens from 10-20%. Researchers say they’ll focus on improving interventions for kids at higher risk for anxiety.

The PBDEs were banned in the United States in 2004, but, Strawn says, many older consumer products still contain the chemicals.

This story was created from a script aired on WISH-TV. Health Spotlight is presented by Community Health Network.