Link Flame Retardants to Hazards
Studies indicate the widely used chemicals affect sexual as well
as brain development.
By Marla Cone
retardants, already linked to effects on the brain, can also alter
sex hormones, reducing male fertility and disrupting ovary development,
according to scientific studies to be released this week.
scientists gathering in Boston for an international conference are
revealing the results of about 100 new studies showing that the
contaminants, which accumulate in breast milk, have spread worldwide
and are a greater threat to children and fetuses than earlier research
California has a new law that will ban two types of PBDEs, or polybrominated
diphenyl ethers, in 2008, experts warn that the chemicals are expected
to keep growing in the U.S. environment and human bodies for years
to come. Only California and the European Union have restricted
for the first time, scientists are reporting evidence that another
flame retardant — not subject to any regulation — poses
similar hazards to people and wildlife. The retardant, deca BDE,
is used in large volumes in TV sets and computers.
variety of new studies shows that deca BDE is also accumulating
in breast milk and is increasing in the environment, even in remote
Arctic lakes. About 100 million pounds of the compound are applied
each year to electronics equipment. Because it is not subject to
restrictions anywhere in the world, more of it is in use than any
other flame retardant.
1,000 scientists — mostly from North America, Europe and Japan
— are gathered at the Dioxin 2003 conference, which is designed
to share research on contaminants that persist in the environment
and accumulate in human bodies and in wildlife.
scientists warn that the chemicals pose a toxic threat that is unprecedented
since DDT and PCBs were outlawed in the U.S. in the 1970s. Experts
are especially concerned about high exposures in the United States,
where the flame retardants are most heavily used.
chemicals have been shown to be taken up by the body. They hang
around a long time and they accumulate. Even when we stop using
them, we will have a legacy that will take years to go away. Decades,
probably," said Linda Birnbaum, the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency's director of experimental toxicology. The EPA says it is
evaluating the risks of the compounds but has no plans to regulate
industry representatives say that the flame retardants are credited
with saving thousands of lives worldwide because they have been
proved to slow the spread of flames in furniture and electronics.
Chemical companies support the California ban on penta and octa
PBDEs, used mostly in furniture, but say the restriction of the
deca compound used in electronics is unwarranted.
O'Toole, a spokesman for the Bromine Scientific and Environmental
Forum — an industry group representing companies that manufacture
PBDEs — said the "weight of the evidence clearly supports
the safety" of deca and that several U.S. agencies previously
have said it poses no significant risk.
scientists gathered at the conference are calling for a more detailed
investigation into the amounts and sources of flame retardants in
Americans and their food — particularly fish, meat and dairy
products — and for research that looks for effects in human
infants as well as adults. U.S. research has been limited compared
to work done in Europe and Canada.
new study of women in Texas concludes that U.S. women contain "extremely
elevated" levels of PBDEs, which "raises concern for potential
toxicity to nursing infants," according to the research led
by the University of Texas Health Science Center.
concentrations are doubling on average every four years in the United
States and Canada. Some women are approaching levels that have harmed
newborn animals' developing brains in laboratory tests, scientists
scientists had reported that when small doses of PBDEs used in upholstered
furniture and bedding were fed to newborn rodents, it disrupted
their thyroid hormones, which guide how the brain develops. That
raises concerns that the PBDEs could be causing subtle changes in
the intelligence, memory and hearing of human babies, because the
hormones control their brain development too.
this week's conference, German scientists are reporting that even
smaller doses fed to newborn lab animals alter their reproductive
development as well, apparently by interfering with estrogen hormones.
Studies by Berlin's Freie Universitat show that the flame retardants
are toxic to the female rodents' ovaries and reduce the males' reproductive
performance, Birnbaum said.
University environmental chemist Aake Bergman, who is chairing a
session on flame retardants at the Boston conference, said the German
studies "indicate a hitherto unknown effect."
the 1990s, research by Bergman and other Swedish scientists prompted
European industries to voluntarily phase out the two types of PBDEs,
and, as a result, levels in breast milk there are declining.
the United States, however, studies of several hundred people show
that women in Indianapolis, Texas and the San Francisco Bay Area
have 10 to 100 times more PBDEs in their breast milk and blood than
European women. No one knows how the contaminants are getting into
human bodies or why some U.S. women are more highly exposed than
others living in the same cities.
gradually accumulate in human fat and, in pregnant women, pass into
the womb and enter the fetus. Babies are highly exposed before birth,
and then get an added dose from breast milk. Nonetheless, doctors
say women should continue to breast-feed their infants because of
the known benefits.
studies conducted in Europe and Canada report that the compounds
are in indoor dust and rural septic tanks. That could mean the source
of contamination in people's bodies is furniture or electronics
equipment in their houses or offices.
theory is that the exposure is coming through ordinary homes,"
research implicating deca BDE is stirring the most objections from
the chemical industry, which has said that the chemical is benign.
Industry groups long have said that it does not accumulate in the
environment or human bodies and that there are no proven health
Muir, a research scientist at Canada's National Water Research Institute,
has found the deca compound in the sediments of remote lakes in
the Canadian Arctic. Muir said although the common wisdom is that
the chemical is not mobile, it apparently is clinging to atmospheric
particles and migrating long distances.
for the first time, low levels of deca have been found in women's
breast milk, although it was found in only six of 23 women tested
at a Dallas clinic, according to the Texas study, led by Arnold
Schecter. O'Toole of the chemical industry group says that fact
is reassuring, because it shows most people are unexposed.
Bergman said it shows that "deca is more of a problem than
perhaps realized, and we do have a number of arguments now [to ban
it]. We know it is accumulating in birds of prey, and seeing it
in mother's milk is a bad observation."
at Sweden's Uppsala University report that deca reduces the learning
ability of rodents exposed as newborns, similar to the PBDEs subject
to the California ban.
of the most intriguing new studies is one by the University of Maryland
that shows that when deca is consumed by fish, it transforms itself
into the types of PBDEs that are known to be hazardous.
said the finding is important because it shows that "deca is
an environmentally unfriendly compound."
European Union is expected to decide this year whether to restrict
deca, but there are no such efforts in California or anywhere else
in the U.S.