Flame Retardants: A Threat to Our Children‘s Development?

Patricia Lemer, DDR Executive Director

Since the 1970’s, manufacturers have been treating mattresses, textiles, plastics and car parts with flame-resistant chemicals known collectively as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Today, these ubiquitous chemicals are showing up not just in our stores, but in our landfills, ground water, house dust, blood and breast milk, and in animals as diverse as fish in Virginia and polar bears and whales in Alaska.

What are PBDEs?

PBDEs come in three varieties: Deca, Penta and Octa. Deca, the most heavily used, is one of the many potentially hazardous chemicals in use, due to a failed national policy that presumes chemicals are safe until proven to cause harm. North American industry accounts for almost half the world’s market of Deca chemicals.

PBDEs did not attract much attention until 1999, when Swedish scientists first detected them in breast milk. Last month a study by the Seattle-based Northwest Environment Watch, a non- profit environmental watchdog group, found PBDEs in 100% of breast -milk samples taken from 40 nursing mothers in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Montana.

Scientists are labeling them "Sons of PCBs," (polychlorinated biphenyls), which were banned in the U.S. in 1976. Why? Because PBDEs look, behave, and have some of the same effects as PCBs. PBDEs, when burned, produce dioxin, considered the most toxic chemical known to science.

Why be Concerned?

PBDEs, like PCBs, are believed to be slowly released over the life of these products and make their way up the food chain and into peoples’ bodies. Once inside, they mimic thyroid and other hormones, interfering with reproduction, memory and learning. Infants and toddlers are the most at-risk because their brains and organs are still developing. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that chemical exposures play a role in at least one in four cases of developmental disorders.

According to Swedish neuro-toxicologist, Per Eriksson, exposure during the critical phase from the third trimester of pregnancy to age two disrupts thyroid function and alters brain development. Newborn mice exposed to a single dose of one part per million of PBDEs experienced nervous system damage, and learning/motor deficits that worsened as they aged. (See New Developments, 4:1, for more about thyroid disruption.)

Not using fire retardants also appears to be unacceptable. Untreated polyurethane foam was partly to blame for the fast- burning Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people last year. Polyurethane treated with PBDEs burns more slowly.

What are Governments and Industry Doing?

Concerns about their toxicity have lead Canada and the European Union (EU) to ban some or all PBDEs. Several Scandinavian countries have based chemical regulation on prevention, requiring thorough testing. The EU recently introduced a draft policy known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals) that will require safety testing of thousands of chemicals already on the market.

The United States is slower. In 2003, California banned the use and distribution of Penta and Octa, but not Deca, in electronics. Some electronics, automobile and furniture manufacturers have adopted official policies to phase out use of PBDEs. In May 2004, Democratic Congresswomen Diane DeGette of Colorado joined with Lynn Woolsey and Hilda Solis of California in introducing the Toxic Flame Retardant Prohibition Act (H.R. 4076) to prohibit the manufacture, processing or distribution of penta and octa PBDEs and their precursors.

What You Can Do for the Environment

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 10, No. 1: Fall, 2004]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.

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