The old joke was: Americans eat so many preservatives, our corpses will never rot. Now, it turns out they won’t burn either. Americans’ bodies have the world’s highest concentration of the flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) – 10 to 40 times higher than Europeans – and our chemical burden is doubling every 3 to 5 years.
PBDEs, which resemble PCBs, are added to upholstery, computer parts, mattresses, fax machines, carpets, car seats and house wiring. We eat, absorb and breathe PBDEs daily, and they end up in everything from baby’s brains and mother’s milk to polar bears.
“What is in commercial products is getting into the environment,” says EPA scientist Linda Birnbaum, “and what’s in the environment is getting into wildlife and people.”
Because the EPA does not require labeling, you are unlikely to know which, if any, PDBEs are in the mattress your baby sleeps on, the couch you potato on and the electronic equipment you surf the web with.
Nor the risks. Despite the chemical’s ubiquity and 30-year history, the EPA says, “Our toxicology database [on PBDEs] is inadequate to truly understand the risk.”
That stance serves the $2.9 billion flame retardant industry – an industry that shreds logic by arguing simultaneously that the effects on humans are unknown and that exposures are too low to cause concern.
But evidence of the danger is piling up. While test animals exposed to high levels of PBDEs developed tumors, even low levels caused deficits in learning and memory that worsened with age. The chemical may also impact behavior, disrupt endocrine function, irreparably damage reproductive systems and cause thyroid disease. A small decrease in thyroid hormone levels can produce cognitive impairment in children, including lowered IQ.
The three main types – penta‑, octa- and deca-BDEs – are named for the number of bromine atoms. Penta and octa are now widely recognized as dangerous. After the European Union, Canada and a few U.S. states banned them, U.S. manufacturers saw the handwriting on the wall, and perhaps the lawsuits in the wings, and ceased production as of 2005.
Recycled materials, like carpet and drapery backing, as well as items produced before the phase-out, may contain as much as 30 percent penta or octa. According to Pesticide & Toxic Chemical News, since the 2004 E.U. ban, foreign sources are dumping “significant amounts” of octa- and penta-laden products in the United States.
The United States still manufactures deca-BDE and uses it in electronics, upholstery and textiles, despite its status as a likely carcinogen and its ability to break down into dioxin-like molecules.
“Some [Americans] have concentrations [of deca] not dissimilar to amounts in animals that cause cancer of the thyroid and liver,” says Birnbaum.
PBDEs, like 62,000 other chemicals grandfathered in by the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, never underwent an approval process. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office found that the EPA “does not routinely assess the human health and environmental risks of existing chemicals and faces challenges in obtaining the information necessary to do so. … Even when EPA has toxicity and exposure information,” it has had difficulty demonstrating risks or pursuing limits or bans on production and use. In 31 years, the EPA has required testing for fewer than 200 grandfathered chemicals.
It used to be assumed that most PBDE contamination came through eating dairy, meat and fish. Increasingly, researchers are looking at indoor air where concentrations are 15 to 50 times higher than outside. In addition to sources such as dust from polyurethane foam and fabric, PBDEs can emit gas at 84 degrees – a temperature common inside computers, cars and houses. The gas then clings to dust particles we breathe.
The link between inhaled PBDE and thyroid disease was strengthened by a recent study on cats. Environmental Science & Technology traced an epidemic of deadly feline hyperthyroid disease back to the ’80s when PBDEs first proliferated. Tests on household cats found that PBDE flame retardant had “a clear association” with thyroid problems, said Birnbaum, a co-author of the study. Cats are particularly vulnerable because they live close to treated carpets and furniture, and breathe PBDE, as well as ingest it through grooming and food.
Another household member with similar exposures – minus the self-grooming, but with an added propensity to put everything into mouths – is children. A National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences study found that PBDE levels in infants and children were 2- to 3‑fold higher than in adults.
The EPA, while calling for more research, relies on industry testing and resists calls to ban or label PBDEs, arguing that until there are safer alternatives, their usefulness in retarding burning outweighs the risk.
Europe, which uses alternative flame retardants, begs to disagree; Americans must beg the EPA to honor its middle name.