The Health Effects of Flame-Retardant Chemicals
For a series on flame retardants from the Environment Report, Rebecca Williams takes a look at what these exposures might mean for our health.
More stoies from the series: Is Fire Safety Putting Us at Risk?
They're called PBDEs. That's polybrominated diphenyl ethers. They help keep foam and plastics from catching on fire.
They are absolutely everywhere.
They're in your car. They're in your couch, your office chair, your TV, your drapes, the padding beneath your carpet, your hair dryer, your cell phone. The problem is, they don't stay put. They leach out of products and they get into us. They're in dust and soil and the wastewater sludge that's spread on farm fields. The chemicals are in fish and meat and dairy. They've been found in the Arctic and Antarctic. They're in peregrine falcons and killer whales and polar bears and salmon. They're in cats and dogs. Babies come into the world with flame retardant chemicals in their bodies. The chemicals have also been turning up in breast milk.
Six years ago, Meredith Buhalis had her breast milk tested as part of a study of new moms. And PBDEs turned up.
BUHALIS: I had a brief moment of oh my gosh, ew, that's terrible!”
Her levels were not much above the average American. And she says she kept nursing her baby because it was the best thing for her. But it did make her think.
BUHALIS: I guess I just thought proactively after that we need more legislation and research about what these chemicals do and how we can control the ways they get into our bodies.
Scientists and doctors are worried because hundreds of peer-reviewed studies are suggesting links to problems with brain development, changes to thyroid systems, and fertility problems.
BIRNBAUM: If you're looking at developmental exposure then these are very toxic chemicals.
Linda Birnbaum is the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. She studies the health effects of flame retardants. She says there are hundreds of studies in animals showing negative effects from PBDEs. Now, human studies are coming out.
BIRNBAUM: Depending how high they were exposed in utero we're seeing associations with some lower IQ and some behavioral deficits. There are also some effects beginning to be reported on other reproductive endpoints in the human population. All of these kinds of effects have been reported in animal studies.
Birnbaum says the average American has about 30 parts per billion of these flame retardants in his or her body. But some people have levels as high as 10,000 parts per billion. Those are levels where in animal studies scientists are seeing problems.
One thing the experts say you should keep in mind is that just because you're exposed to a chemical does not mean you'll get sick and die.
Dr. Arnold Schecter studies our exposure to flame retardants. He's a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health.
SCHECTER: What we're talking about is not something like cyanide where if you get some in your body you're going to drop dead immediately. We're talking about something more like asbestos or cigarette smoking where you have effects on a population basis. 80 percent of lung cancers are from smoking but the majority of smokers are not going to get lung cancer so there's some genetic roll of the dice.”
Dr. Schecter says you really should try to keep your levels as low as you can. But it can be really tough because these chemicals are everywhere. And despite government policies to reduce our exposures, there's no evidence levels are going down.