Brominated Fire Retardants
For those unmotivated by the threat of obesity, there's a new reason to get up off the couch and eat less fatty foods: Fire retardants used in polyurethane foam furniture have been linked, in experiments with rodents, to endocrine disruption and damage to developing nervous systems. Known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, these chemicals stick around in the environment and accumulate in animal fats. So, what we eat is one likely source of exposure-but where we sit may be another. In humans PBDEs are appearing in increasingly high levels, according to four studies by researchers at the Environmental Working Group, University of Texas, Indiana University, and California Dept of Toxicology and published in 2002. The neurological impact on children exposed in utero is of particular concern, researchers say.
In the Indiana study of American mothers and infants, accumulations of PBDEs in breast milk and blood were from 20 to 106 times higher than those found in a similar Swedish population. PBDEs have also been found in blood and breast milk in women in Japan, Germany, and Canada. What's especially alarming, researchers say, is that PBDEs are molecularly similar to PCBs, chemicals that have been shown to cause brain and nervous system in children whose mothers ate contaminated fish. Though banned in 1978, PCBs still persist in the environment, and fish remain a potent exposure path. In a worldwide dispersal pattern akin to that of PCBs and DDT, PBDEs have been measured in San Francisco Bay fish and harbor seals, Greenland fish and mussels, Great Lakes gulls, Lake Ontario trout, polar bears near the North Pole, ringed seals from the Canadian Arctic, and beluga whales near Baffin Island. A 2001 University of Wisconsin study of salmon from Lake Michigan found some of the highest levels of PBDEs ever reported. Lower levels of PBDEs have been found in chicken and other meat.
Besides food, the other significant exposure routes are most likely house dust and air contaminated by PBDEs released from couches and other everyday consumer products. In addition to polyurethane foam furniture and mattresses, PBDEs are used in plastic casings for computers and other office machines, televisions, hair dryers, industrial textiles, and carpet pads.
U.S. body concentrations are by far the highest, and they are doubling every few years. As it is, Swedish levels, having increased fivefold every seven years, were enough to spur the EU to ban PBDEs beginning in 2004. California is the first state to have legislated a ban, to start in 2008. Worldwide production of Penta-BDEs, the form of PBDEs most readily absorbed by living organisms, nearly doubled between 1992 and 2001.
In 2001, the Americas used 15,650,000 pounds of Penta-BDEs, compared with 331,000 pounds each for Europe and Asia. Although Penta levels are highest in the Americas, there are reasons for consumers in Asia and Africa to be concerned, given the widespread environmental dispersal of PBDEs around the globe.
What Consumers Can Do
- When buying new products, especially for infants, young children, or pregnant women, seek those that are PBDE-free, particularly in mattresses and upholstered furniture. One safe option: a mattress or futon of cotton wrapped with wool, a natural fire-retardant. All of IKEA's furniture is PBDE-free, as are Toshiba computer casings.
- Watch out for crumbling or exposed foam areas on furniture or carpet pads; replace or recover.
- Demand that products containing PBDEs be labeled as such.
- Ask the EPA to phase out all PBDEs, and conduct research into possible health effects of other chemical fire retardants.
- If breast-feeding, continue to do so. The benefits of breastfeeding to child intellect and bodily health have been found to outweigh the risks of exposure to contaminants, which pose more danger in utero, doctors say.
- Make sure that home and workplace are equipped with working fire alarms, which are essential-even though they, too, at this point, contain PBDEs.
As part of a new partnership with The Green Guide Institute (www.thegreenguide.com), World Watch will be including this new feature throughout 2004. This issue's piece is by Green Guide Editor Mindy Pennybacker.