Toxic Fire Retardants Building Up Rapidly in CA Fish

For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, July 10, 2003

OAKLAND, CA — Levels of a little-known class of neurotoxic chemicals found in computers, TV sets, cars and furniture are building up rapidly in key indicator species of San Francisco Bay fish, according to tests by the Environmental Working Group (EWG.)

Tests on six kinds of commonly eaten Bay fish found PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in every fish sampled. Fish caught last fall by local anglers were compared with archived samples from 1997, and PBDE levels more than doubled in halibut and more than tripled in striped bass — the two most commonly eaten Bay fish and key indicators of overall contamination.

Complete results of the tests — the first for PBDEs in San Francisco Bay fish — are at They add to the evidence that the Bay Area is a hotspot for pollution from brominated chemicals used in commercial fire retardants.

Some PBDEs have already been banned in Europe, but legislation pending in Sacramento by Assembly Majority Leader Wilma Chan of Alameda would be the first regulations on brominated fire retardants in the U.S. On Monday, the state's top environmental official, Cal-EPA Secretary Winston Hickox, backed the legislation, saying that in the face of federal "inaction," the state should ban chemicals that he said "raise serious public health questions."

Exposure to low doses of PBDEs can cause permanent neurological and developmental damage including deficits in learning, memory and hearing, changes in behavior, and delays in sensory-motor development. Most at risk are pregnant women, developing fetuses, infants and young children, and the 10 million Americans with hypothyroidism. Scientists say most Americans may already carry levels of PBDEs that cause serious nerve damage in lab animals.

“We don’t have to poison the Bay or our bodies for fire safety,” said Sonya Lunder, EWG analyst and principal author of the study. “Computers and other products can be made flame-resistant by using different materials or better design, instead of adding toxic chemicals that are a public health timebomb.”

PBDEs are chemically similar to PCBs, a notorious class of cancer-causing chemicals banned more than 20 years ago but still found in people and animals worldwide. Hundreds of consumer goods contain PBDEs, including electronics, electrical cables, carpets, furniture, and textiles. How these chemicals get into the environment is a mystery, but they have been found worldwide in house dust, indoor air, rivers, and oceans.

PBDE levels in Bay fish are much higher than in fish from Europe, Japan and other parts of the U.S. Earlier studies of PBDEs in the blood and breast tissue of Bay Area women, and of harbor seals from the Bay, have found levels three to 60 times higher than measured in people and animals in Europe.

The California Legislature is considering a ban on some types of PBDEs in consumer products by 2008. AB 302 by Majority Leader Chan, which passed the Assembly in May 2003 and is awaiting a vote in the state Senate, would make California the first state in the nation to regulate PBDEs. Some computer makers and other industries are already moving toward safer alternatives, but their rapid buildup makes it imperative that all brominated flame retardants are phased out quickly.

"The United States is the biggest maker and user of chemical flame retardants in the world, and California is the largest market in the nation," said Chan. "It's important that we act now to keep these toxins out of our bodies and our environment."

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