finds flame-retardant chemical in U.S. breast milk
By Jane Kay
San Francisco Chronicle
A common chemical flame retardant was found in the breast
milk of 20 U. S. women at levels that were much higher
than those found in European women, according to a study
by an environmental advocacy group.
The report by the Environmental Working Group recommends
that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ban the
use of PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, some
of which are already prohibited in the European Union.
California's recent decision to phase out by 2008 two
industrial mixtures of PBDEs -- penta and octa -- is not
protective enough and may result in the use of 365 million
additional pounds in the interim, said the Washington,
D.C., nonprofit, which is releasing the report today.
The EPA had not yet seen the results of the Environmental
Working Group study, said David Deegan, an EPA spokesman.
"PBDEs have been looked at a number of times. The
EPA has not concluded the need for regulatory action,
but we are continuing to evaluate them."
PBDEs are fire retardants used in soft polyurethane foam
in furniture and in textiles and carpets as well as in
hard plastic computers, home appliances and dashboards.
Research on PBDEs in laboratory animals link exposure
to thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and
memory impairment, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations,
behavioral changes, hearing deficits and possibly cancer.
"The fire retardants are now found in house dust,
sewage sludge and the water and sediments of rivers, estuaries
and oceans. They've been found in the tissues of whales,
seals, birds and bird eggs, moose, reindeer, mussels and
dozens of species of freshwater and marine fish,"
including in the North Sea, Baltic Sea and Arctic Ocean,
the study said.
There is a worldwide trend of the retardants building
up rapidly in the environment since their first use in
the 1960s. The levels in San Francisco Bay's harbor seals
have increased 100 times in the last 10 years.
Scientists fear that PBDEs will pose the same environmental
nightmare as the banned PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyl
ethers, because they're similar in molecular structure.
They accumulate in humans and wildlife, where they can
injure the central nervous system.
Between November and June, the Environmental Working
Group studied 20 women from 14 states, including three
from the Bay Area, who had hand-pumped their breast milk
within several months after the birth of their babies.
The levels ranged from 9.5 to 1,078 parts per billion
in milk fat with an average level of 159 parts per billion.
All of the participants had higher levels than those
detected in studies of European women, and more than 50
times higher than the average of those in a Swedish study
published in 2003.
When Oakland resident Katrina Friedman, 31, agreed to
join the study, she assumed that her healthy diet, yoga
and a clean job at Hot Studio, a small San Francisco design
firm, was producing chemical-free milk for her baby daughter,
But Friedman had PBDE levels in her milk at 79 parts
per billion, higher than the number that triggered a ban
of the flame retardants in Europe.
"I love my child more than anything. I want to protect
her from broken glass, bullies at school and invisible
poisons like this one. But I'm powerless. These chemicals
aren't banned in the United States, and we're just continuing
to add them in the environment," Friedman said.
Her partner, Brian Alcorn, was just as shocked at her
results. "He was glad that I took part in the study.
It's studies like this that bring these issues to light.
The purest act -- nursing your baby -- is no longer pure."
Citing health concerns over the discovery of PBDEs, the
European Union earlier this year called for penta and
octa mixtures to be phased out by August 2004. A third
mixture of PBDE, called deca, is still under review.
The Environmental Working Group said new studies indicate
that compounds contained in deca can convert to penta
in the environment and should also have been phased out
in Europe and California. Industry officials say deca
doesn't transform to penta.
Representatives of the two largest U.S. manufacturers
of PBDEs, the Great Lakes Chemical Co. in Indianapolis
and Albermarle Corp. in Richmond, Va., said Monday there
were no peer-reviewed data that show that the chemicals
cause ill health effects in humans.
Anne Noonan, vice president of market technology and
advocacy for Great Lakes, said, "It's not surprising
that the higher levels would be found in the United States
than in Europe. The major market for penta has always
been in the U.S."
Penta has worked well as a fire retardant, and can be
used in the softer, less dense foam popular in U.S. furniture,
Her company has developed a substitute for PBDEs, a bromine
phosphorous- based flame retardant that is under review
by the EPA. The contractors hired to study the product
say it's not toxic or persistent and it doesn't accumulate
in organisms, she said.
Penta, octa and deca are all under review in the EPA's
Voluntary Children's Chemical Exposure Program. Earlier
this year the companies submitted scientific data for
According to its Web site, the Environmental Working
Group is a "research organization dedicated to improving
public health and protecting the environment by reducing
pollution in air, water and food."
The study may be found at www.ewg.org.