July 14th, 2011
By: Sally Oaken
Potentially toxic flame retardants, many of them containing compounds known as penta brominated diphenyl ethers, are a common component of many household products containing polyurethane foam.
Originally intended to increase product safety by decreasing fire risk, these compounds have come under increasing scrutiny since the early 1990s due to growing evidence of their damaging health effects.
But even though these chemicals have been banned in 172 countries and 12 U.S. states, they continue to make their way into a wide variety of products found in U.S. households, including toys and upholstered furniture.
In an especially disconcerting study conducted by researchers at Duke University earlier this year, potentially toxic flame retardants were found in 80 percent of samples of polyurethane foam collected from baby products commonly and legally sold in the U.S.. Samples were taken from car seats, high chairs, strollers, nursing pillows and bassinet mattresses.
The results of the study were published in 2011 by the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science and Technology, and suggest that additional research is warranted “to specifically measure infants exposure to these flame retardants from intimate contact with these products, and to determine if there are any associated health concerns.”
Penta brominated diphenyl ethers, also known PBDEs, are known to bio-accumulate in fatty tissue, breast milk and blood after being inhaled or ingested with food.
The highest and most dangerous concentrations of ingestible and inhalable PBDEs occur in plants that repair and recycle products containing these chemicals, and also in domestic environments, since they persistently show up in household products containing polyurethane foam.
Recent studies show that in the U.S., blood concentrations of PBDEs are much higher in children than in adults. These chemicals are known to have damaging effects on nervous system development and can also disrupt the function of estrogen and thyroid hormones.
When children are exposed to these chemicals early in life, either through inhalation or ingestion with breast milk, their damaging effects have been known to persist into adulthood and may include reduced performance on intelligence tests and behavioral changes like hyperactivity.
The Duke University study suggests that even though the manufacture and distribution of PBDEs is subject to increasing restrictions in the U.S. and Europe, these dangerous flame retardants are still finding their way into our homes and the body tissues of developing infants. It may be wise to check labels carefully and investigate PBDE levels before exposing infants to polyurethane foam products.
February 28th, 2011
The New York Times
By: Julie Scelfo
For about a decade, scientists have known that most Americans have minute quantities of flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, PBDEs, in their bodies, but they were not sure how they got there.
Now a study has found what the authors say is the first documented case of serious PBDE contamination of food in the United States. The authors of the study, in the February issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, bought packages of 10 brands of butter at grocery stores in Dallas and shipped frozen samples to a laboratory in Germany. Sophisticated tests there found trace amounts of PBDEs in each sample, with one having 2,000 times more than the others.
“It’s very startling,” said Dr. Arnold Schecter, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health at Dallas and an adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency. “It was so much higher than we had ever seen before, and this just stood out like a sore thumb.”
After further testing, the researchers, who include the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, concluded the butter with the highest level of PBDEs was probably contaminated by chemicals in its wrapper.
The Environmental Protection Agency says PBDEs, which are widely used in furniture foam, consumer electronics and small appliances, accumulate in the body and may damage the liver and thyroid and cause neurodevelopmental problems. But Dr. Schecter and other scientists are quick to insist the findings should not cause anyone to stop eating butter. (According to two scientists who were not involved with the study, the average adult would have to consume more than 28 pounds of the highly contaminated butter each day before the quantity would reach levels the Environmental Protection Agency considers risky.)
The research is further evidence of why the Food and Drug Administration “should do a better job of studying how food is contaminated with PBDEs and other chemical pollutants,” Dr. Schecter said. “Just as lead and dioxins and PCBs have been lowered in the environment and in food, government action can reduce the amount of PBDEs in the environment.”
While the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act gives the agency greater authority over the nation’s food supply, Douglas Karas, an F.D.A. spokesman, said there were no plans to require manufacturers to test specifically for PBDEs.
February 2, 2010
By S. L. Baker
So many US women have difficulty becoming pregnant that the fertility industry has become a huge business, raking in between three and five billion dollars a year. Now a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives raises the possibility that a lot of women who can’t have babies could have flame retardant chemicals to blame — specifically, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are commonly found in an alarming number of household consumer products.
In a study involving over 200 women, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) discovered that women with higher blood concentrations of PBDEs took far longer to become pregnant than those with low amounts of the chemicals in their blood. In fact, for every ten-fold increase in blood levels of four PBDE chemicals tested, there was a 30 percent decrease in the odds a woman would conceive a child during a month.
“There have been numerous animal studies that have found a range of health effects from exposure to PBDEs, but very little research has been done in humans. This latest paper is the first to address the impact on human fertility, and the results are surprisingly strong. These findings need to be replicated, but they have important implications for regulators,” the study’s lead author, Kim Harley, said in a statement to the media. Harley is an adjunct assistant professor of maternal and child health and associate director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health Research at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
PBDEs are a class of organobromine compounds found in foam furniture, electronics, fabrics, carpets, plastics and other common household items. They were commonly added to these and other products as flame retardants after the 1970s when new fire safety standards were implemented in the US.
So how big is the problem of homes contaminated by PBDEs? Unfortunately, it appears to be huge. The chemicals are known to leach out into the environment and accumulate in human fat cells. Previous studies have suggested that 97 percent of U.S. residents have detectable levels of PBDEs in their blood and that the levels in Americans are 20 times higher than in their counterparts in Europe.
The most prevalent form of PBDEs found in the blood of women participating in the UC Berkeley study were from a specific formulation known as a pentaBDE mixture. Both this kind of PBDE and another type, octaBDE, have been banned for use in several states — but they are still widely found in products manufactured before 2004.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally got around to addressing the danger of PBDEs at the end of 2009. Did the agency issue an urgent alarm about products containing the chemicals — even ban them outright to protect consumers? No. Instead, the EPA quietly announced an agreement with three major manufacturers of some forms of PBDEs to phase out production by 2013. Unfortunately, this is clearly too little too late to protect countless Americans from the potential danger of these contaminants.
“Although several types of PBDEs are being phased out in the United States, our exposure to the flame retardants is likely to continue for many years,” said the study’s principal investigator, Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health at the School of Public Health. “PBDEs are present in many consumer products, and we know they leach out into our homes. In our research, we have found that low-income children in California are exposed to very high levels of PBDEs, and this has us concerned about the next generation of Californians.”
What’s more, the scientists pointed out in the press statement that there’s reason to be concerned about additional chemical contaminants in the immediate future. True, PBDEs are being phased out from consumer products — but they are being replaced with other potentially toxic compounds. “We know even less about the newer flame retardant chemicals that are coming out,” said Dr. Harley. “We just don’t have the human studies yet to show that they are safe.”
January 27, 2010
By Shari Roan