Ten Years After California Ban, Big Drop in Fire Retardants in Breast Milk

The science of biomonitoring – measuring the chemical pollution in people – produces a seemingly unbroken stream of horror stories, with study after study reporting a new toxic threat building up in our bodies. So when a study shows declining levels of toxic chemicals in people, it’s good news – and encouraging proof that citizen action against hazardous chemicals works.

In 2002, California state scientists tested the breast milk of Bay Area women and made a shocking finding: Levels of a class of industrial chemicals that can permanently harm the nervous system and development of fetuses and infants were the highest ever measured in the world – up to 60 times higher than in European women.

The chemicals were polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, used as fire retardants primarily in furniture and electronics. The extremely high levels in Bay Area women were due to of California’s strict fire-resistance standards for upholstery, making the state the heaviest user of the type of PBDEs most likely to build up in people, animals and the environment.

EWG and other environmental groups launched a campaign to ban or restrict PBDEs, which studies showed were not needed for fire safety. We tested for PBDEs in fish in San Francisco Bay, in breast milk in American women nationwide and in dust from the women’s houses, each time finding dangerously high levels.

California lawmakers quickly enacted a ban on PBDEs, taking effect in 2006. A dozen other states followed suit and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency negotiated an agreement with chemical companies to phase out most PBDEs by 2014.

California scientists who conducted a follow-up study to assess the effect of the ban last month reported that levels of PBDEs in the breast milk of Bay Area women have dropped by almost 40 percent.

“This is good news for parents and children,” Barbara Lee, director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, said in a news release. “It shows that by taking action on harmful chemicals in consumer products we can reduce our uptake of those chemicals and better protect public health.”

The findings show the effectiveness of the state’s Safer Consumer Products program, one of the first in the U.S. to implement the principles of so-called green chemistry.

“This is the goal of the Safer Consumer Products program, which is asking manufacturers who market their products in California to find safer alternatives for the toxic chemicals in their products,” said Meredith Williams, the program’s deputy director.

The news isn’t all good. The study found that despite the decline, babies born to all the women were exposed to some PBDEs, almost a third of them to very high concentrations of the chemicals. And in 2014 a study from EWG and Duke University found that the class of fire retardant chemicals that has replaced PBDEs, including some known to cause cancer, is building up in the bodies of mothers and their children.

The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission is considering a petition from scientists and advocates, including EWG, to ban this new generation of fire retardants from children’s products, furniture, mattresses and household electronics. Once again, citizens are taking action to push government regulators to do their job and protect public health.

Ultimately, the only way to prevent trading one group of bad chemicals for others that may be just as dangerous is to reform the nation’s Toxic Substances Control Act to ensure that chemicals are proven safe before they’re allowed on the market – and before they show up in people’s bodies.

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