Common Fire Retardant Chemical in Moms can Lead to Diabetes in Offspring

We already know from previous scientific studies there is a link between the commonly used industrial chemical PBDE and diabetes* in adult humans.  The question until now has been how does this happen?  Now a new study has shed light on one of the possible avenues that exposure to the industrial chemical PBDE can lead to diabetes: Pregnant females exposed to PBDE chemicals can pass the chemical to babies in the womb and during breastfeeding.  Then, when those babies grow up, they may develop diabetes–long after the time they were initially exposed.

But how do pregnant women–or anyone for that matter–come into contact with PBDE chemicals?  PBDE chemicals have had widespread use for several decades and can still be found in homes, offices, theaters, hotels, airplanes, cars, and so on. Used as a fire retardant for the past several decades, PBDE can be found in the foam and upholstery in/on sofas and other furniture, electronics and many other items.  Because they become airborne easily (such as when someone sits down on a piece of furniture), they are in the greater environment–our air, soil and water–making avoiding these chemicals nearly impossible. 

“Even though the most harmful PBDEs have been banned from production and import into the U.S., inadequate recycling of products that contain them has continued to leach PBDEs into water, soil, and air. As a result, researchers continue to find them in human blood, fat, fetal tissues, as well as maternal breast milk in countries worldwide.”

-Dr. Margarita Curras-Collazo, researcher

Study overview

Given the previous association between PBDE chemicals and diabetes in adult men and women, and in pregnant women, scientists wanted to understand whether these chemicals could have harmful effects on children of PBDE-exposed mothers. For ethical reasons such experiments cannot be conducted on humans so the researchers gave PBDEs to mouse mothers (at low levels comparable to average human environmental exposure) both during pregnancy and lactation.  The researchers then tested both the mothers and their offspring for all the hallmarks of diabetes exhibited in humans.

Study findings overview

All of the babies developed glucose intolerance, high fasting glucose levels, insulin insensitivity, and low blood insulin levels, which are all hallmarks of diabetes. In addition, researchers also found the babies had high levels of endocannabinoids in the liver, which are molecules associated with appetite, metabolism, and obesity.

Though the mothers developed some glucose intolerance, they weren’t as affected as their offspring.

“Our findings indicate that chemicals in the environment, like PBDEs, can be transferred from mother to offspring, and exposure to them during the early developmental period is damaging to health.”  

-Dr. Margarita Curras-Collazo, researcher

What’s next

Researchers say that longitudinal studies in humans are needed to determine the long-term consequences of early-life PBDE exposure.  This is the only way to determine whether human babies exposed to PBDEs both before and after birth go on to become diabetic children and adults.


People can limit their PBDE exposure by always washing hands before eating, vacuuming frequently, wearing protective gloves and mask when dusting, and where financially possible, replacing furniture and other products with newer versions that do not contain it. If replacing furniture containing PBDEs is not an option, leave windows cracked to permit fresh air to circulate. As for expectant mothers, they are encouraged to become well-informed about stealth environmental chemicals that can affect their unborn and developing children.

*Diabetes leads to elevated levels of blood glucose, or blood sugar. After a meal, the pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that helps cells utilize glucose sugar from food. When cells are resistant to insulin, it doesn’t work as intended, and levels of glucose remain high in the blood even when no food has been eaten. Chronically high levels of glucose can cause damage to the eyes, kidneys, heart, and nerves. It can also lead to life-threatening conditions.

Journal Reference:  Elena V. Kozlova, Bhuvaneswari D. Chinthirla, Pedro A. Pérez, Nicholas V. DiPatrizio, Donovan A. Argueta, Allison L. Phillips, Heather M. Stapleton, Gwendolyn M. González, Julia M. Krum, Valeria Carrillo, Anthony E. Bishay, Karthik R. Basappa, Margarita C. Currás-Collazo. Maternal transfer of environmentally relevant polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) produces a diabetic phenotype and disrupts glucoregulatory hormones and hepatic endocannabinoids in adult mouse female offspring. Scientific Reports, 2020; 10 (1). Overview/ DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-74853-9