Q&A with Dr. Deborah Bennett on the connection between Flame-Retardant Chemicals and Preterm Births


Q&A with Dr. Deborah Bennett on the connection between Flame-Retardant Chemicals and Preterm Births

Insights from Dr. Deborah Bennett, EHSC Exposure Core Lead, on ECHO Cohort Study’s Findings and Future Directions

Dr. Deborah Bennett, EHSC Exposure Core Lead, recently sat down for an interview with the to shed light on new research regarding how flame-retardant chemicals may increase the risk of preterm birth. 

This study, part of the NIH's Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Cohort, delved into the impact of organophosphate esters (OPEs) on pregnancy outcomes, particularly preterm birth and birth weight. The findings revealed a concerning association between specific classes of flame-retardant chemicals, OPEs, and adverse birth outcomes, with pregnant individuals facing increased risks, especially concerning baby girls. 

These chemicals, commonly found in everyday products like furniture, electronics, and building materials, pose a significant health concern, considering their prevalent use and potential consequences for maternal and child health. In a press release regarding the research, Dr. Bennett emphasized the urgent need for further research to comprehend the implications of OPE exposure during pregnancy fully, highlighting the importance of comprehensive studies to elucidate the relationship between these chemicals and birth outcomes.

Read more of our conversation below: 

(Conversation edited for clarity and brevity)

The new research you and your team have compiled is interesting and seems to be filling in the gaps of potential missing links. What would you like to share with the EHSC community about the study overall?

We are exposed to flame retardant compounds in our homes because they are used in a number of consumer products and articles we purchase for our homes. The problem is these compounds are not well studied, and it's important we learn more about how these compounds impact health, especially children's health.

In regards to our study results, we found that women who had higher levels of exposure during pregnancy to some of these specific flame retardant compounds were more likely to give birth to a preterm child. Preterm births are associated with a variety of adverse health effects later in life, and therefore, we want to minimize the number of mothers giving birth to babies preterm.

In your study, you noted that there are different health outcomes for baby girls in comparison to baby boys. Why is this the case? 

We think that these compounds in part, act through disrupting thyroid and hormone processes. This is why there can be differences in results among girls and boys.

What can you share about the ECHO NIH program?

NIH Echo

The ECHO program is a considerable nationwide effort that brings together cohorts from all across the country. This study involved ECHO cohorts from around the country and moms from around the country. This makes it so that we have a better understanding of the impacts overall because it's not a single tiny cohort from just California; instead, we have more varied demographics in our dataset. Over 6,000 moms participated in this particular study and analysis.

You seem very passionate about this project; what is it about this research field that captures your interest?

I think it’s important to have a better understanding of chemicals in the environment, and a group of us got together when the ECHO project started to identify which chemicals haven’t been studied as much as others because this is a great opportunity to look at some less studied compounds. While these OPE compounds have been in use for quite a while now, there have not been that many epidemiological studies on them yet so we thought this is a great opportunity. We worked with the various cohorts from around the country to see who had urine samples from pregnancy to be sent in so we could have them analyzed all at the same lab and really make a leap forward in our understanding of the health impacts of OPE chemicals. At times, it felt like herding cats getting the 6,000-some-odd samples to the lab, but overall, it was a great team of people who were all working together to make this happen. Really, the team aspect of this project made it enjoyable. 

Will there be any follow-up or secondary studies? 

I just left a meeting where we were discussing all of the next steps! The next steps are as the children grow, they have completed a variety of different assessments.  There are evaluations  underway looking at growth trajectories, which are how children grow for the first few years of life. There are evaluations looking at the child's behavior and other neurodevelopmental outcomes. More is hopefully to come!

What are your big takeaways from this study? Anything else you’d like to share? 

This study did involve over 6,000 women, and we did see relationships with adverse birth outcomes, so I think we need to start thinking in terms of whether policies need to be put in place to reduce exposure to these compounds.

To learn more, Dr. Bennett’s research is published in Environmental Health Perspectives.  A personal thank you to Dr. Bennett for taking the time to sit down with us and share. 

Angelina Angelo (Staff Image)


Angelina is the EHSC editorial assistant for the communications department and is an undergraduate student at UC Davis studying Human Development. She is an aspiring writer with a focus on science communication.