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Mother's Milk

Mother's Milk

Toxic Fire Retardants (PBDEs) in Human Breast Milk
Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Study Finds Record High Levels of Toxic Fire Retardants in Breast Milk from American Mothers

In the first nationwide tests for chemical fire retardants in the breast milk of American women, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found unexpectedly high levels of these little-known neurotoxic chemicals in every participant tested.

The average level of bromine-based fire retardants in the milk of 20 first-time mothers was 75 times the average found in recent European studies. Milk from two study participants contained the highest levels of fire retardants ever reported in the United States, and milk from several of the mothers in EWG's study had among the highest levels of these chemicals yet detected worldwide.

These results confirm recently published findings from University of Texas researchers, as well as other U.S. studies, that American babies are exposed to far higher amounts of fire retardants than babies in Europe, where some of these chemicals have already been banned. In the United States, only California and Maine have acted to restrict the use of these chemicals.

Breast milk is best

Even women with very high levels of fire retardants in their breast milk should continue to breastfeed their babies. There are two main reasons why. First, adverse effects on learning and behavior are strongly associated with fetal exposure to persistent pollutants, not with breast milk exposure. And second, breastfeeding appears to overcome some of the harmful effects of high fetal exposure to persistent chemicals. Breast milk data are very useful, however, because they are an excellent measure of fetal blood levels, and fetal exposure to fire retardants.

More information

Like PCBs, their long-banned chemical relatives, brominated fire retardants are persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative, building up in people’s bodies over a lifetime. Brominated fire retardants impair attention, learning, memory, and behavior in laboratory animals at surprisingly low levels. The most sensitive time for toxic effects is during periods of rapid brain development. Fire retardants in breast milk are one measure of the chemicals that a mother passes on not only to her nursing infant, but more importantly, to the unborn fetus, which is most vulnerable to impacts from neurotoxic chemicals.

Brominated fire retardants are in hundreds of everyday products, including furniture, computers, TV sets and automobiles. Studies worldwide have found them to be building up rapidly in people, animals and the environment, where they persist for decades. Research on animals shows that fetal exposure to minute doses of brominated fire retardants at critical points in development can cause deficits in sensory and motor skills, learning, memory and hearing. Levels of particularly toxic and bioaccumulative types of brominated fire retardants, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), are by far highest in the United States and Canada compared to levels in any other country. Together, the US and Canada account for almost half of global PBDE use.

Chemical fire retardants are not necessary for fire safety: Some manufacturers, from furniture makers to computer companies, have achieved the same level of safety by redesigning their products to be inherently less flammable without chemical treatments. The European Union has banned the most toxic forms of PBDEs beginning next year, and some Asian countries are close behind. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set no safety standards or other regulations for their manufacture, use or disposal. Only one state, California, has banned some chemical fire retardants, with the phase-out to be complete by 2008. By then, if fire retardants continue to be used at the present level, another 365 million pounds of these toxicants will be in Americans' homes, schools, offices, and bodies.


map showing geographic distribution of study participants

[Download larger version of map in PDF format]


Most brominated fire retardants used in North America are made by two companies, Great Lakes Chemical Corp. of West Lafayette, IN, and Albemarle Corp. of Richmond, VA. While preparing to comply with the EU ban, these companies are spending millions of dollars in Congress and state legislatures lobbying against domestic protections — even working against consumers' right to know what they're buying so they can choose PBDE-free products. Through their dominance of the world market in brominated chemicals, the two corporations are hindering the efforts of other companies to provide customers with safer alternatives.

These results confirm the need for prompt action to reduce American children’s exposures to toxic fire retardants.

  • The EPA should phase out all of these toxic fire retardants as quickly as possible. In the interim, all products containing PBDEs should be labeled so that consumers have the option of choosing products without them.
  • EPA must screen new and existing chemicals for their health effects. In particular, potential replacement fire retardants must be adequately tested to ensure that they are not persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic. Testing must include the outcomes most relevant to children’s health. Changes in product design that decrease the need for chemical fire retardants should be encouraged over simply switching to different, less studied chemicals.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should expand its fledgling national biomonitoring program to include a greater number of chemicals and people. The study provides critical data in identifying chemicals that are accumulating in our bodies and in the environment; tracking trends in exposure; providing data needed to more fully understand human health risks; and helping EPA and other agencies effectively transition businesses to safer, less persistent chemicals than those in current common use.
  • Congress should increase funding for urgently needed research on toxic fire retardants, including their health effects, how they get into the human body, and current levels of accumulation in people, animals and the environment.
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