AR-News: (US) High level of PBDEs found in breast milk
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Tue Sep 23 16:34:46 EDT 2003
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
High level of PBDEs found in breast milk
Study urges ban on fire-retardant chemicals, but backs
By ROBERT McCLURE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Chemicals used to prevent fires in everyday items such
as furniture and computers -- and known to cause
developmental problems in test animals -- have been
measured in women's breast milk at troubling levels,
says the first national study of the phenomenon.
While emphasizing that mothers should continue to
breast-feed their babies because of the many benefits
of the practice, a study due out today warns that
production and use of the chemicals should be
Europe is phasing out the use of polybrominated
diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, and California recently
passed legislation banning some forms of the
chemicals, which came into heavy use in the 1970s.
The 14-state study by the Environmental Working Group,
a research and advocacy organization, collected
breast-milk samples in women from Seattle to Florida
and Los Angeles to Boston.
While the study analyzed only 20 women's breast milk,
the findings mirror earlier studies that involved
larger numbers of women in select American cities. And
one woman in the new study showed the highest level of
PBDEs ever recorded in North America.
The study comes as concentrations of the chemicals --
similar in many ways to the PCB fire retardants that
have poisoned Puget Sound orcas and turned up in
countless other animals, including people as far-flung
as the Eskimos -- appear to be increasing in Americans
and their environment.
"It's indicative of the broken system of chemical
regulation in the country," said Bill Walker of the
Environmental Working Group, editor of the report.
"The chemical regulation process in this country
basically allows this grand experiment to be carried
out on all of us," Walker said. "We release these
chemicals into the environment and 20 or 30 years
later we see the effects. That doesn't seem to make
A representative of the Bromine Science and
Environmental Forum, which represents the handful of
companies that manufacture the flame retardants, said
the industry is working on replacements for PBDEs
considered most toxic. But, he added, the chemicals
save hundreds of lives annually.
" When you say let's ban fire-retardants, you have to
ask, well, what are you going to replace them with?"
said Peter O'Toole, the forum's U.S. program director.
"Are (the replacements) going to keep us safe, and are
they as well-studied in terms of environmental
PBDEs are used in computer casings, carpets, marine
lacquers and paints, fax machines, printers, cell
phones, lamp sockets, circuit boards, coffee makers
and other applications. The most troublesome form,
scientists say, is in polyurethane foam used in items
including furniture, mattresses, carpet padding and
But it's unclear how the chemicals are moving from
these products of the modern age into our bodies,
scientists say. Many suspect that a lot of it comes in
animal fat found in meat and dairy products, but
recent studies have also found high levels in common
And here's the weird thing: Whether scientists look at
blood or breast milk or fat or house dust, they find
that a small proportion -- from 3 percent to 16
percent, depending on the study, but usually around 5
percent -- has especially high levels that can't be
accounted for based on known exposure to products
In other words, people living in the same town and
apparently doing a lot of the same things can have
widely different PBDE levels -- as much as a 50-fold
"We're still trying to get a handle on why that might
be," said Tom McDonald, a toxicologist with the
California Office of Environmental Health Hazard
Assessment. "There's clearly something about this
small fraction of the population that the sources of
their exposures are different."
Studies of laboratory mice and rats have shown that
PBDEs can cause delayed onset of puberty, decreased
sperm counts, learning impairment, hearing loss and
disruption of the thyroid hormone that governs growth
PBDEs' toxicity to humans remains unclear, though. The
levels being measured in people are 10 to 20 times
less than levels shown to cause effects in laboratory
mice and rats. While that might sound comforting,
toxicologist McDonald is far from complacent. Put
simply, he says, scientists probably aren't picking up
effects on the lab rats at lower levels.
And bear in mind that levels in humans are increasing.
That might translate into permanently depressed IQ
levels in exposed children, for example, scientists
Like PCBs, PBDEs hang around in the environment a long
time. And they "bioaccumulate," meaning that each
animal that eats a smaller animal containing the
chemicals takes in a dose that is stored in its body
rather than being excreted along with the rest of the
prey animal. The chemicals build up to ever-higher
Some researchers have taken to calling them "the new
PCBs." Those chemicals, widely used as fire retardants
in industrial equipment, were banned in this country
in the 1970s. But everyone has some PCBs in them, and
PBDEs appear to add to the harm.
The woman who provided a Seattle sample of breast milk
is Erika Schreder, staff scientist at the Washington
"It really brings it home to find out that what I hope
is the best food for my baby has been contaminated by
the chemical industry," Schreder said. "I wish that my
breast milk was pure."
Her group was disappointed this year to see the
Legislature pull financing for a Department of Ecology
program aimed at phasing out chemicals such as PBDEs
that accumulate in the environment and don't go away
for a long, long time.
Renee Sharp, a scientist with the Environmental
Working Group and co-author of the new report, pointed
out that alternatives to PBDEs are available
Ikea, for instance, had to comply with the European
ban on PBDEs that goes into effect next year, so the
company simply used a thicker foam in its furniture
that is still fire-resistant enough to meet safety
standards, she said. Some computer manufacturers are
starting to house their machines in metal instead of
Scientists who study PBDEs said they are running into
trouble finding the money they need to launch needed
One is Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas
Health Sciences Center, who last month published a
study on PBDEs in 47 Texas women's breast milk.
When it comes to studying the effects of the
chemicals, "There are no human studies, which is
remarkable," Schecter said. "And this is something
we'd like to get started on as soon as we can get
funded for it."
Even before that can be done, though, Schecter said
the policy implications are clear: "We need to reduce
the amount in the environment so that individual
mothers don't need to start worrying, and it's not
getting into children."
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at
206-448-8092 or robertmcclure at seattlepi.com
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