Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are in all kinds of consumer products. We're exposed to these chemicals every day. They're in our couches, our TVs, our cars, our office chairs, the padding beneath our carpets, and the dust in our homes. They're building up in pets, wild animals and fish. They're even in some of the foods we eat.
Scientists are finding these chemicals in newborn babies, and the breast milk those babies drink.
A few years ago, I produced a five-part series on PBDEs, looking at our exposure to these chemicals and what it might mean for our health, the politics and policy behind our use of these chemicals, and the alternatives to types that have been phased out... only to find that scientists are digging up problems with the newer flame retardants as well.
We Americans have among the highest levels of PBDEs in our bodies of anyone in the world. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies over the past decade suggest links to neurological and developmental defects, and fertility and reproductive problems.
But so far, we have limited studies in humans.
A study out today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives finds evidence of developmental effects in children.
Brenda Eskenazi is the lead author of this study. She’s a professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology at the University of California-Berkeley. She says her team's previous work has revealed links between flame retardant concentrations in mothers' blood and decreased fertility, lower birthweight babies and changes in thyroid hormone levels (even after controlling for exposure to pesticides and other chemicals).
Professor Eskenazi's new study is the largest to date to examine neurobehavioral development and PBDEs in school age children.
"We measured PBDEs in the mothers’ blood during pregnancy and in the children’s blood when the children were 7 years of age. And we found that there was an association between maternal blood levels, and child blood levels and fine motor coordination, attention, and cognitive problems. So for example, we found that the children who had the lowest levels of PBDEs in their blood compared to the children with the highest levels of PBDEs in their blood had about a 6 point IQ difference."
Some kinds of PBDEs have been phased out – but they’re still in a lot of older furniture, carpet padding, and electronics, and the chemicals leach out and get into household dust – and then we can inhale or ingest that dust, and the PBDEs can build up in our fat cells. Eskenazi says we're continually being exposed.
"In fact, not only do these chemicals leach out of furniture that we bought before 2005, but newer chemicals have been added even more recently that we know even less about but that are chemically very, very similar to PBDEs. In addition, these chemicals, the PBDEs that we’re talking about today, have a very long half-life in our bodies and in the environment, which means it will take a very long time for them to leave our body and to leave the environment, but in addition, we continue to be exposed to those same chemicals because they’re leaching out of the furniture we bought a long time ago."
Experts agree that it's very difficult to avoid exposure to PBDEs, but there are some things you can do.
"One is: if you have furniture that is falling apart, foam that’s coming out of sofas or chairs, seal them. Whether you use tape or sew it up, try to seal up the foam that’s coming out of the chair. The second thing you can do is wash your hands and wash your child’s hands frequently, especially before eating and food preparation. The third thing you can do is use a damp cloth on surfaces to remove some dust that might be contaminated with these chemicals, as well as using a vacuum on the floors. Particularly good is a HEPA vacuum. It’s best to buy products that have natural fibers such as cotton or wool, especially for things that are going to be used around children."
Flame retardants are typically added to products with polyurethane foam in them. Experts I've talked to say one rule of thumb is to look for the little white label on furniture and baby products with foam in them that says it meets California TB 117... and then avoid buying that stuff if you can. But they say that's not a foolproof guide, because there is no requirement that products containing flame retardants have to be labeled.
So why are we in this situation?
This spring, the Chicago Tribune published an extraordinary investigation of the tobacco and chemical industries called "Playing with Fire." Here's an excerpt:
The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world. The toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home, packed into couches, chairs and many other products. Two powerful industries — Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers — waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of these chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.
The Tribune investigation reveals:
The tactics started with Big Tobacco, which wanted to shift focus away from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths, and continued as chemical companies worked to preserve a lucrative market for their products, according to a Tribune review of thousands of government, scientific and internal industry documents.
The manufacturers of flame retardant chemicals continue to maintain the safety of their products.
But as I found in my reporting in 2010 for my series Is Fire Safety Putting Us At Risk?, the law that is intended to regulate these kinds of chemicals is very weak:
Some people say the EPA’s hands are tied. Deborah Rice is a toxicologist with the Maine Center for Disease Control. She says the chemical industry made sure of that.
“The Toxic Substances Control Act was passed by Congress over 30 years ago and it had major input by the chemical industry, and it hasn’t been reformed since because of major lobbying by the chemical industry. That’s what kept the U.S. unable to really protect the health of its citizens or the environment.”
Rice has direct experience with input by the chemical industry. In 2007, the EPA asked her to chair a panel to help set safe exposure levels for a PBDE flame retardant. The chemical industry felt Rice had expressed bias against the chemical. The industry asked the Bush Administration’s EPA to remove Rice from the panel. The EPA removed her.
To this date, there are no federal bans on any PBDE flame retardant.