Flame retardants found in furniture, cars, carpet padding, and baby products are supposed to make these products safer. But according to neuropsychologist and epidemiologist Brenda Eskenazi, they may do more harm than good — particularly in children, who are more vulnerable to environmental hazards than adults.

Eskenazi, professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley and director of CERCH — the Center for Environmental Research & Children’s Health — spoke at an Environmental Health Colloquium at Harvard School of Public Health on November 26, 2012. The talk was sponsored by the Department of Environmental Health at HSPH. She discussed the troubling health effects of flame retardants called PBDEs — polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Research by Eskenazi and colleagues suggests links between PBDEs and a host of neurobehavioral problems among children with high exposures to these chemicals — attention problems, behavior issues, lack of fine motor coordination, and impaired cognitive development.

Although PBDEs were phased out in 2004, “they will be around for a long time to come because of their half-life, and because you’ve got all of these household objects that will continue to off-gas,” Eskenazi said. PBDEs leach out of furniture and other products and become part of household dust, which can be either inhaled or ingested.