OAKLAND, CA — The phaseout of two widely used chemicals will not protect Americans from exposure to brominated fire retardants linked to brain and nerve damage, according to nationwide tests of house dust that found unexpectedly high levels of a third retardant that will remain on the market.
In the first national tests for PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in household dust, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found high levels of the neurotoxic compounds in every home sampled. The average level of PBDEs in dust from nine homes was more than 4,600 parts per billion (ppb), well above the average in any previous U.S. dust study. A tenth sample, collected in a home where products with fire retardants were recently removed, had more than 41,000 ppb of PBDEs — twice as high as any other dust study worldwide.
EWG's tests indicate that consumer products such as computers, TVs, furniture, carpets and drapes, not industrial releases, are the most likely sources of the rapid buildup of PBDEs in people, animals and the environment. Our findings raise concerns that children may ingest harmful amounts of brominated fire retardants via dust, and indicate neither the pending federal phaseout or regulations enacted or under consideration in seven states go far enough.
Under an agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and chemical manufacturers, two of the three main PBDEs in use, Penta and Octa, will be taken off the U.S. market at the end of 2004. The fire retardants industry is fighting to retain use of the third and most heavily used compound, Deca — despite clear evidence that it is toxic, builds up in people, animals and the environment, and can break down to the more harmful forms being phased out.
In half of the homes EWG sampled, the predominant PBDE present was the type found only in Deca. 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 are in vain if they don't include Deca.
California was the first state to take action on PBDEs, enacting legislation to ban Penta and Octa beginning in 2008. Six other states have passed or are considering bans or regulation of PBDEs.
"It is no longer possible to ignore the evidence that Deca poses a threat to health and the environment," said EWG analyst Renee Sharp, principal author of the new study. "The EPA can't leave it to the states to regulate Deca on a patchwork basis. The evidence demands prompt action."
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.
It is no surprise that American homes are full of PBDEs, which are added to thousands of consumer products. 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.