As it turns out, the higher your exposure to organophosphate flame retardants (PFRs), found in many foam products including most yoga mats, the lower your chances of getting and staying pregnant, according to new research published in Environmental Health Perspectives from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. This small study looked at 211 women who were undergoing in vitro fertilization treatments.
Researchers analyzed the participants' urine for five flame-retardant chemicals and compared their chemical exposure to their pregnancy outcomes. The study found that women with the highest concentrations of chemicals were 10 percent less likely to achieve fertilization, 31 percent less likely to experience successful embryo implantation, 41 percent less likely to achieve pregnancy and 38 percent less likely to have a live birth compared with the women who had the lowest amounts of the chemicals in their urine.
"These findings suggest that exposure to PFRs may be one of many risk factors for lower reproductive success," said study author Courtney Carignan. “They also add to the body of evidence indicating a need to reduce the use of these flame retardants and identify safer alternatives."
Chemical flame retardants are found in a surprisingly large amount of everyday items. Almost anything with polyurethane foam, from carpet pads to couch cushions, could be increasing your exposure to PFRs.
The good news is there are simple steps you can take to reduce your exposure, including washing your hands regularly and replacing as many items as possible with flame retardant-free products. Some exposure is inevitable, so it's important that we don’t beat ourselves up over the presence of these chemicals in our environment. Instead, focus on making whatever changes you can afford, which could be as small as a new mattress pad or as large as opting for hardwood over wall-to-wall carpet.
Before you ditch your favorite yoga class or rip up your carpet, it’s important to keep in mind that there's still a lot more research to be done, looking at both larger group samples and how these chemicals might affect male fertility and children as well.
"Couples undergoing IVF and trying to improve their chances of success by reducing their exposure to environmental chemicals may want to opt for products that are flame-retardant free,” wrote Russ Hauser, the study's senior author.
Whether you're trying to get pregnant or not, it can’t hurt to err on the side of caution. In 2004, harsher flame retardants such as PentaBDE were phased out due to health concerns. These new PFRs are an improvement since they're less toxic and clear out of your body in a matter of days versus years with the older flame retardants. While progress has been made, this study shows we must push for safer alternatives and a reduction of these chemicals in the products we buy and use every day.