By Heather Ostman

Invisible Chemicals:Good at stemming fires, but bad for our health?

  |  Health Advice & Tips  

Car seats, bike helmets, baby gates, and even cell phones are among the purchases parents make every year to keep their children safe, aiming to protect their kids from many foreseeable, preventable dangers. But what about those dangers we can’t see? Last year, studies published by the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) and by scientists from the University of Texas found high levels of fire retardancy chemicals — polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) — in the breast milk of American mothers. Worldwide studies also found that PBDEs, like their cousins PCBs, which have already been banned, build up in the human body and are linked to impairments in the attention, learning and memory abilities, and even the behavior of laboratory animals. These findings represent threats parents cannot see and experts cannot yet quantify — ironically, from chemicals produced for safety precautions. Unfortunately, brominated fire retardants are unavoidable, since they are used in hundreds of ordinary items, including furniture, computers, televisions, and cars. There are several types, but those now suspected to be toxic are the PBDEs. Within this group, three — penta, octa, and deca — are the most commonly used in fire retardant products and among the most bio-accumulative. To date, only California, Maine, and Michigan have begun acting to restrict PBDEs, and California has legislated to phase out the deca and octa fire retardant chemicals by 2008. In Europe, two of the three common PBDEs have been banned as of 2004, and the third will be banned by 2006. The EWG study, published this past September, received an onslaught of publicity because its findings showed the levels of PBDEs in the breast milk of 20 mothers studied nationwide were the highest in the world, and 56 percent higher than the levels found in a study headed by Dr. Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas — a difference that may be accounted for by the EWG’s restricting its study to first-time mothers. One reason the levels may be so high in Americans is because the United States and Canada are responsible for nearly half of the PBDEs used globally. Sonya Lunder, the author of the EWG publication Mother’s Milk and an EWG environmental analyst, explains: “American and Canadian women have the highest rates because we have used the vast majority, 90 percent, of the penta supply in the world.” Lunder notes that it is not necessarily consumer demand that is responsible for this high rate, but more likely the stringent flame retardancy laws in this county, “mostly to protect from cigarette fires,” she says, “which make up 80 percent of the fires started on beds.” Joel Forman, M.D., of Mt. Sinai Hospital’s pediatrics department, and assistant professor in the department of pediatrics and department of community and preventive medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, adds: “PBDEs are fat-soluble, so that’s how they get into breast milk.” He calls the EWG study “a small, biased” examination of only 20 women, and advises against alarm. “People should not go get tests” in search of PBDEs, he says. The dangers of PBDEs are largely speculative, based on the family relationship to PCBs, which are known to affect cognitive abilities. Dr. Forman points out: “The relationship between fire retardant chemicals like PBDEs and learning disabilities like ADD is not clear.” Right now, he adds, there are no reliable human studies; however, “PBDE tests have been on lab animals, so people, and I include myself among them, suspect the connection is likely.” Nevertheless, experts agree that mothers should continue to breastfeed their infants, which could help counterbalance prenatal exposure to PBDEs and other threatening chemicals. Says Dr. Forman: “The health benefits of breast milk outweigh the risks. No question.” Lunder also advocates: “Women should breastfeed,” and stresses that prevention is the goal. While PCBEs are everywhere, EWG claims that not all fire retardant chemicals are necessary; some manufacturers have less-flammable products without chemical enhancement. Laura Haight, senior environmental associate of New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in Albany, echoes Lunder, saying, “Prevention is the best cure,” and cites NYPIRG’s work to get fire-safe cigarette legislation passed two years ago that requires unattended cigarettes to go out in 1-2 minutes. Since brominated fire retardants are found in foam-padded furniture, screens of computers and televisions, carpet padding, among other household items, preventive action parents can take includes avoiding crumbling foam; cleaning up after removing old carpet padding; and buying items that contain natural fibers, such as cotton and wood, and that are fire resistant by nature. They should be vigilant about their family’s diet, offering children less processed foods, less meat and high-fat dairy products, and more organic foods and filtered (as opposed to tap) water. They should avoid microwaving food in containers made of plastic, and instead use ceramic or glass containers. Lastly, Dr. Forman reminds parents: “Don’t smoke.” Because of the bio-accumulation of PBDEs, their effects seem to be irreversible, but since the EWG study was published, fire retardant chemical manufacturers volunteered to stop making two types of PBDEs by the end of 2004. Lunder says, “This means that furniture makers will have to find new ways to make their products fire safe. We hope that they consider less toxic solutions to preventing fires.”