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 PBDEs – the Toxic Flame Retardants Minimize

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a major class of brominated flame retardants (BFRs), are added to plastics and synthetic fibers in TVs, computers and other plastic-encased electronics, mattresses, upholstered furniture, foam cushions, curtains, and hair dryers, to slow the spread of fire. Maine and others have recently banned two commercial PBDE products known as Penta and Octa, and is considering legislation to replace the most widely used PBDE mix called Deca with safer alternatives.

About 49 million pounds of Deca, or nearly half the world’s production, was added to consumer products in North America in 2001. Deca can make up 10 to 15% of the plastic casing of a television and 18 to 27% of upholstery fabrics by weight. Because PBDEs are not chemically bound to plastics, they leach out of the products over time. For example, older computers and automobiles can release PBDEs into the air. When Deca leaches out of products, it is converted by sunlight into more toxic forms.

The alarm on PBDEs was sounded in 1998 when Swedish scientists first determined that these chemicals were increasing rapidly in human breast milk. (Breastfeeding is still best – see Box.) Today, PBDEs are being found virtually everywhere scientists look—in indoor air and household dust, in food, breast milk and umbilical cord blood. Children and adults in the United States have 10 to 40 times more PBDEs in their bodies than people living in Europe or Japan, because the U.S. is the largest consumer of PBDE flame retardants in the world.

[BOX: Breastfeeding is Still the Best for Babies
While researchers have found PBDEs and other chemicals in breast milk, mothers should not be discouraged from breastfeeding. Breast milk is still the best food for babies. Infants who do not breastfeed or do so for only a short time have more acute illness such as ear, lung, and urinary infections. Exposure to foods other than human milk in the first few months of life can increase the risk of life-long autoimmune illnesses. Without breastfeeding, infants do not receive optimal nutrition, important hormones, protective immune factors, and promoters of brain development. Formula feeding does not eliminate children’s exposure to toxic chemicals and may increase exposure due to contaminants and leaching of chemicals from plastic baby bottles.

For more information, see Why Breast-Feeding is Still Best for Baby, by Physicians for Social Responsibility at Adapted from Washington Toxics Coalition.]

Bettie Kettell had the highest individual blood level of total PBDEs, at three times the group median. She works in Surgical Services in a recently constructed community hospital containing new rugs, drapes, and furniture.
PBDEs in Maine People

Figure 2 shows that a wide range of PBDEs were detected in all 13 Maine participants, from 6.8 parts per billion (ppb) to 59 ppb. We found 28 different congeners of PBDEs out of the 46 that we tested for in blood. (Congeners are similar types of chemical compounds; there are 209 possible PBDE congeners). The PBDE levels found in Maine people were generally comparable or somewhat lower than those found in other studies. Two of the PBDEs that are breakdown products of Deca, known as BDE-153 and BDE-183, were higher in Maine participants than in similar small studies in Washington and California.

Bettie Kettell had the highest individual blood level of total PBDEs, at three times the group median. She works in Surgical Services in a recently constructed community hospital containing new rugs, drapes, and furniture. Her department has a large amount of equipment, including computers and monitors. This might explain her exposure levels since commercial buildings have higher fire safety standards—and thus more flame retardant-containing furniture and equipment—than private homes.

Two of the Maine participants, Bettie Kettell and Lauralee Raymond, had total PBDE levels higher than the median value reported in 62 women from California and Indiana. They also had the second and third greatest number of individual PBDE congeners detected, 26 and 25 respectively (out of 46 tested). Russell Libby, an organic farmer, had the most PBDEs detected (27) but his total levels were somewhat lower than levels in Bettie and Lauralee.

Figure 2: PBDE levels, measured in blood serum, expressed on a lipid weight basis.
National median from McDonald (2005).

HEALTH EFFECTS: Learning Disabilities and Behavior Problems

Everyday exposure to PBDEs may be enough to cause children to struggle to keep up in school and reach their full potential. Most recently, for example, a study conducted at the University of Southern Maine found that newborn mice exposed to Deca had delays in brain development and reduced thyroid levels when young, and as an adult suffered from long-term learning and behavior problems.

PBDEs are chemically similar to PCBs, chemicals banned in the 1970s that damage brain function and cause a variety of other toxic effects. Research suggests that PBDE exposure affects thinking and learning abilities, reproductive development, liver tumors, and functioning of thyroid, a hormone essential for brain development and healthy metabolism. Thyroid effects have been shown in wildlife. EPA has also classified Deca as a possible human carcinogen, based on a valid two-year animal study.

Policy Changes Needed

The PBDE flame retardants can be completely replaced with safer alternatives. A number of leading electronics and furniture companies are making their products fire safe without the use of PBDEs. The Penta and Octa commercial mixtures of PBDEs have been banned in Maine and eight other U.S. states and throughout the European Union, and manufacturers have withdrawn them from production.

Government action is needed to phase out the use of Deca-BDE. In the European Union, the commercial Deca formulation can not be sold because it contains banned PBDEs and is therefore in violation of the Restriction on Hazardous Substances for electronics and electrical equipment, which went into effect on July 1, 2006. The temporary regulatory exemption granted to pure Deca has been challenged in the European Court of Justice by the European Parliament because the European Commission failed to consider the availability of safer alternatives.

Sweden has banned the use of Deca in textiles (furniture, mattresses, drapes, etc.) and for other uses not covered by European-wide directives on electronics and automobiles. Other European countries are considering a similar approach.

The use of Deca in electronic casing, mattresses, and home furniture will be prohibited in Washington state under a new law enacted in 2007. Legislation in Maine, LD 1658, will implement the goal adopted by law in 2004 to phase out similar uses of Deca in favor of safer alternatives. Deca phase-out legislation has also been introduced in California, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, Hawaii, Minnesota, and Massachusetts.

It is encouraging that PBDE levels in Swedish breast milk began to decrease after PBDE use was reduced. Following this lead, Maine law now prohibits the sale of products containing the highly toxic Penta and Octa PBDEs and requires the state to phase out sales of Deca if safer alternatives are available. Because flame retardants can reduce the risk of some household fires, finding safer flame retardants is an important step in eliminating PBDEs from the market.

A report by the University of Massachusetts concluded that non-halogenated alternatives to Deca-BDE (i.e., those not containing bromine or chlorine) are widely available, effective, and affordable for electronic enclosures (e.g., the plastic cases of TVs) and textiles. The phosphate-based flame retardants such as RDP enable televisions to meet the highest fire safety standard without Deca, and are already used by leading TV and computer manufacturers. A recent independent analysis of three flame retardant chemicals concluded that RDP is safer than Deca, and is preferable as we search for even greener solutions that ensure fire safety and environmental public health protection.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently noted in a report to the Legislature that safer alternatives are available for TV cabinets and textiles, the applications that consume most Deca, and that there are no significant costs or technological barriers preventing this change. The DEP recommends that the state ban the sale of televisions and other consumer electronics that have plastic casings containing Deca effective January 1, 2012, and should ban the sale of mattresses and upholstered furniture that contain Deca after January 1, 2008.

Reducing Your Exposure to PBDEs

You can take steps to reduce your family’s exposure to PBDEs, including:

Buy PBDE-free furniture and electronics. Since products do not have to be labeled, it is difficult to know what individual items are free of PBDEs. Furniture without brominated flame retardants is available from IKEA and Herman Miller. Many of the leading electronics companies are using alternative flame retardant chemicals. For example, televisions made by Sony, Phillips, Panasonic/Matsushita, and Samsung are now all Deca-free. For further information, visit

Consider housecleaning with a high efficiency vacuum. These are expensive but filter our dust much better than conventional vacuum cleaners. About 80% to 90% of PBDE exposure of Americans is thought to come from household dust contamination.

Reduce animal fats and avoid farmed salmon. Most PBDEs are fat-loving food chain contaminants. Choose lean cuts of meat and low-fat or non-fat dairy products. Choose wild salmon over farmed salmon since it is lower in PBDEs and other contaminants such as PCBs and dioxins.


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