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PBDEs - Fire Retardants in Dust

PBDEs - Fire Retardants in Dust

Toxic Fire Retardants In American Homes
Wednesday, May 12, 2004

View and Download the report here: In the Dust

High Levels of Toxic Fire Retardants Contaminate American Homes

In the first nationwide tests for brominated fire retardants in house dust, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found unexpectedly high levels of these neurotoxic chemicals in every home sampled. The average level of brominated fire retardants measured in dust from nine homes was more than 4,600 parts per billion (ppb). A tenth sample, collected in a home where products with fire retardants were recently removed, contained more than 41,000 ppb of brominated fire retardants — twice as high as the maximum level previously reported by any dust study worldwide.

Like PCBs, their long-banned chemical relatives, the brominated fire retardants known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative, building up in people's bodies over a lifetime. In minute doses they and other brominated fire retardants impair attention, learning, memory and behavior in laboratory animals.

EWG's test results indicate that consumer products, not industrial releases, are the most likely sources of the rapid buildup of PBDEs in people, animals and the environment, which has been documented by tests from Europe to the Arctic. Scientists now recognize that indoor environmental contamination, including contaminants accumulating in household dust, pose a substantial health risk to the population. Our findings raise concerns that children may ingest significant amounts of toxic fire retardants via dust, and indicate that the impending federal phase-out of two PBDEs doesn't go far enough to protect Americans.

Two of the three main PBDE products in use, Penta and Octa, will be taken off the U.S. market at the end of 2004. The fire retardants industry has strongly resisted the regulation of the third product, Deca, maintaining that it is not harmful despite mounting evidence that shows Deca is toxic, detected widely in the environment, and can break down to more harmful forms, including those being phased out.

In half of the homes EWG sampled, we found the predominant PBDE present was the type found solely in the Deca product. We also found important new evidence of PBDEs' chemical breakdown, underscoring the fact that current federal and state efforts to get rid of harmful PBDEs may be in vain if they don't include Deca.

In September 2003, nationwide tests by EWG found record levels of PBDEs in the breast milk of American mothers. This follow-up study of household dust includes 10 of the 20 participants from the breast milk study, and is the first study to compare the concentrations of fire retardants in people and in their homes. Although PBDE concentrations in dust are much higher than those found in food, water, air or soils, we found no correlation between PBDE levels in house dust and in breast milk. This finding highlights the important yet still unanswered question of whether some people absorb more PBDEs than others, metabolize these chemicals differently, or are slower to eliminate them.

High levels of PBDEs were found in all ten homes tested
Locations in the US where PBDE has been found in dust parts per billion

It is no surprise that American homes are contaminated with PBDEs. They are added to thousands of everyday products, including computers, cars, TVs and furniture. But our tests show the surprising degree to which these chemicals are escaping from consumer products. The PBDE concentrations we measured in house dust are much higher than levels previously reported in people, animals or the environment, and also pose a more direct risk of exposure to people, especially children, who continually ingest or inhale dust.

Penta and Octa will be banned by law in the European Union this year, in California in 2008, and under an Environmental Protection Agency agreement with PBDE makers, will not be manufactured in the U.S. beginning next year. In addition, measures to study, regulate or ban one or more PBDEs have either been enacted or are under consideration in Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and Washington state. Regulatory or legislative proposals to add Deca to the EU and California bans are under consideration this year. A bill introduced in the U.S. Congress last month would ban Penta and Octa in 2006, and directs EPA to identify and ban proven precursors (such as Deca) within three years.

The EPA should not wait. It is no longer possible to ignore the evidence that Deca poses a threat to health and the environment. Deca was found in 16 of 20 breast milk samples analyzed by EWG in 2003. In our latest tests, Deca was found at equal or greater concentrations in American homes than the PBDEs subject to phaseout, to which all evidence indicates it is a precursor. Deca's toxicity to laboratory animals, its presence in the human body and its breakdown to more toxic forms demand prompt action.

EWG recommends:

  • The EPA must promptly phase out all PBDEs, including Deca.
  • All consumer goods containing PBDEs must be labeled so that consumers may choose fire retardant-free products.
  • The EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission must issue clear advice American consumers on the safe use and disposal of products containing PBDEs.
  • EPA must rigorously test potential replacement fire retardants to ensure that they are not persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic. Redesigning products to reduce the need for chemical fire retardants is safer than substituting new compounds that may be later found harmful.

View and Download the report here: In the Dust

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