September 23, 2003

Mother's Milk: Failure to protect children

Evidence of PBDE contamination in women's bodies and breast milk in the US should come as no a surprise. The evidence against PBDEs was strong enough that bans were proposed in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Industrial users of the chemicals agreed to voluntarily phase them out in Germany in 1986, with the manufacturers and users in the other two countries later following suit. In 1993, Germany placed official limits on PBDE use under its Dioxin Ordinance because of the tendency for PBDEs to release dioxins when burned. [94] As concern spread to other countries, the European Union launched a scientific review of the safety of PBDEs, originally with respect to electronics waste. In February 2003, the EU announced a ban on two common PBDE mixtures (Penta and Octa) in all products as of August 2004. [52] The EU is also considering a ban on Deca for use in electronic products by July 2006. Pending the completion of further studies, the EU Chemicals Inspectorate will decide whether to also ban Deca in other non-electronic products as of 2006. [95]

Even before the ban takes effect, the earlier efforts to reduce PBDE use in Europe are paying off. Researchers have found that PBDE levels in Swedish breast milk rose exponentially from 1972 to 1997, but since that year have begun to decline: PBDE levels in Swedish women dropped about 30 percent between 1997 and 2001. [96] These results are encouraging. This shows that if protections are enacted and PBDE use ceases or declines, the human body burden of PBDEs will also decrease after a lag-time of several years or more. However, given the massive amount of PBDEs in U.S. homes, and the much higher levels than in European women, PBDE body burdens in Americans might take longer to decline.

Despite that fact that PBDE concentrations in Americans and their environment are ten to 100 times higher than those found in Europe, the U.S. government has so far done nothing to counter this rapidly escalating problem — nor did it do much to stop it in the first place, when safety testing could have flagged the problem in its infancy. Like almost all industrial chemicals, the health effects of PBDEs went virtually unstudied at the dawn of their use in commercial products. In 1994, EPA determined that the waste stream from the production of Octa and Deca "should not be listed as hazardous." [97] The only other standard governing PBDEs is the requirement that companies that manufacture or use large amounts of Deca report their chemical pollution under the Toxics Release Inventory.

State action a first step

State legislation was introduced in California, Maine and Michigan this year that would ban or restrict the use of several types of these fire retardants. While these bills are a welcome first step, they all fall short of what is needed to prevent further build up of these persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals.

A bill passed by the Maine legislature (LD 743), and signed into law in May, 2003 requires electronic manufacturers or importers to phase out all brominated fire retardants and several other toxic substances such as lead, mercury and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) by 2006. But producers can apply for exemptions if they can convince officials that there are no feasible alternatives. Of course, the law does nothing about the brominated fire retardants in non-electronic products. Bills that would have banned the use of PBDEs in all products by 2006 were introduced in Michigan during 2003 and 2002 (HB 4406 and HB 5575, respectively), yet have failed to progress in the legislature.

The California standards, signed into law in July 2003, ban two commercial mixtures, Penta and Octa, but exempt the most widely used PBDE product (Deca-discussed below). This is troublesome, as numerous studies have shown that the types of PBDEs in this commercial product can break down into other congeners that are much more bioaccumulative and bioreactive, and which are included in the proposed California legislation. The law also gives PBDE producers and users until 2008 to stop using the chemicals, despite the fact that another 365 million pounds of PBDEs will be put into American couches, easy chairs, cars, planes, buses and other consumer products before the phase-out date in five years. [10] Finally, the law doesn't require manufacturers to label PBDE-containing products, a provision that would have allowed consumers to make more informed decisions, rewarded the companies who have already shifted away from PBDEs, and provided extra incentive to manufacturers and users to speed their conversion to new fire retardants, materials, or design.

What about the other PBDEs?

One of the major debates about regulation of PBDEs centers on the effects of the various congeners in the environment. Scientists have found that PBDEs with five or fewer bromines are almost totally absorbed by the body, slowly eliminated, highly bioaccumulative, and cause health effects at relatively low levels. In contrast, PBDEs with more bromines are less readily absorbed, less bioaccumulative, more quickly eliminated by the body, meaning that they are found at lower levels in living creatures. [32]

Fire retardant manufacturers have claimed that Deca is "very poorly absorbed," (less than 2 percent of an oral dose is absorbed) and rapidly excreted (with almost complete excretion within 72 hours). [32]


Thus, it would be virtually impossible for Deca to enter women's bodies and even more unlikely for it to pass into breast milk. [32] Despite these assurances, measurable levels of Deca were detected in 16 of 20 young mothers at levels up to 1 ppb, as well as eight of 23 women in Dr. Schecter's recent Texas study — at concentrations as high as 8 ppb. [47] The laboratories used in the studies cannot yet test for octa-BDEs in breast milk or other biological samples.

Fire retardant manufacturers have estimated the concentrations in breast milk of a mother working to disassemble computer monitors. They modeled two scenarios, the "Reasonable Estimate" using "plausible, yet conservative" assumptions and the "Upper Estimate" using "absolute worst-case exposures." [32]

They concluded: "[A] significant health risk is not expected for children under any of the scenarios evaluated, even using extremely conservative assumptions. Therefore, no further, more detailed evaluation of [Deca] is warranted to ensure adequate health protection for young children."

Maybe the industry should take a closer look at the everyday exposures for American mothers before they claim that their product is safe. In fact, in two recent studies of just 67 participants, we found levels of Deca in young mothers who were not occupationally exposed to be 6 to 40 times higher than industry's model for women disassembling computers at work.

Summary graph of toxicity studys

Toxic effects of Deca

New research also indicates that Deca may be more toxic than previously thought, exhibiting some of the same effects on newborn rats and mice as PBDEs with fewer bromines. [98] And equally importantly Deca can covert to PBDEs with fewer bromines which are more toxic and more likely to accumulate in human beings. Numerous studies show that when exposed to sunlight, the higher-weight congeners can be converted to the more toxic PBDEs with fewer bromines. [99, 100, 101, 102, 103] This degradation in the environment has been observed for structurally similar chemicals like polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and PCBs. In laboratory conditions Deca can degrade to 50 percent of its original mass in as little as 15 minutes, [99] and one study found that after five days of exposure to sunlight just 6 percent of the deca-BDE congener remained undegraded. [104]

The bottom line is that all chemicals in the PBDE family have the potential to cause serious environmental and health problems — some alone, some through their breakdown products, others by interacting with other toxic chemicals, and all by interfering with important life processes in the environment, wildlife and humans. The chemical industry, trying to save a highly profitable product (Deca), is pushing the notion that certain PBDEs are harmless. The available evidence argues the opposite: in the environment, Deca degrades into the very chemicals being banned in Europe and California. To prevent a bad situation from getting worse, all PBDEs should be phased out without delay.

Affordable Replacements

For most uses of brominated fire retardants there are already chemical replacements on the marketplace at equivalent or only slightly higher cost. Aluminum trihydroxide and various phosphorous-based compounds are some of the most common alternatives. But rather than replacing one chemical with another that is unstudied and might also be toxic. A better solution is to redesign products so that chemical fire retardants are not needed to meet fire safety regulations.

The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission recently reported that adding fire retardants to foam offered very little additional protection from fire: "CPSC laboratory tests have demonstrated that the properties of actual filling materials have little or no effect on the small open flame ignition resistance of full-scale chairs." [33] Simply using a barrier fabric and less flammable foam can achieve the same level of fire safety. Similarly, increasing the density of polyurethane foam or using materials that are naturally less flammable can eliminate the need for chemical fire retardants. [105]

Another non-toxic tactic to prevent fire is to control sources of fire ignition. One target is cigarettes, which are responsible for the bulk of fatal blazes. New York state blamed cigarettes for 199 deaths between 1997-2001, making smoking materials the most frequent cause of fatal blazes during that period. [106] In response, the state passed legislation to require that cigarettes sold by mid-2004 must be self-extinguishing. This can be easily accomplished by wrapping the tobacco in a heavier paper and removing the citrates added to cigarette wrappers to promote burning. The tobacco industry is expected to fight the legislation in court.

Trade groups and fire retardant producers such as the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, California Retailers Association, the American Electronics Association and Great Lakes Chemical vigorously opposed the California ban bill. However, facing restrictions on PBDE use in the European Union, many U.S. manufacturers moved to find alternatives to PBDEs, even in the absence of national regulation. Computer and electronics companies such as Apple, Dell, IBM, Motorola, Panasonic, Phillips and Sony are already producing some PBDE-free or BFR-free products. [105] Ericsson, Intel, Phillips, Sony and Toshiba recently announced a complete ban of PBDEs in advance of the EU regulation by 2006. IKEA and Ericsson have taken additional steps toward moving away from using any halogens (bromine, chlorine, fluorine or iodine) in their products. [105]

Fire retardant manufacturers are scrambling to find a replacement for Penta used in foam furniture. The Swedish furniture giant IKEA was forced to phase out brominated fire retardants in all its products due to European limits on the chemical's use. They accomplished this by changing product design, using naturally less-flammable materials, and employing alternative fire retardants if needed. Hickory Springs of Conover, N.C., a major polyurethane foam producer, is working with Akzo Nobel, a chemical manufacturer, to test a non-halogenated, phosphorous-based fire retardant. Hickory Springs says it was motivated by requests from companies such as IKEA, Crate & Barrel and Eddie Bauer for PBDE-free furniture. [107]

No safety studies on many toxic chemicals

Several US states have taken important steps to phase-out a handful of brominated fire retardants. This is the first step toward protecting consumer safety, but it offers incomplete protection as long as manufacturers are not required to test the impact of replacement chemicals on human health — before they go into nationwide use. There is very little data on the toxicity of the fire retardants that are currently being developed or are already in use as alternatives to PBDEs. This is largely because of well-documented shortcomings in the nation's toxics laws. The chief regulatory statute for commercial chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), is infamous for its failure to lend meaningful authority to the Environmental Protection Agency. [108] The looming PBDE crisis and uncertainty surrounding replacement chemicals provide another disturbing illustration of the failures of a regulatory system that allows persistent, bioaccumulative toxins onto the marketplace before they have been adequately tested for safety. With these fire retardants, we are again reaping the high costs, in terms of health and productivity, of this industry-favored system.

Under the current system, the EPA reviews new chemicals through a process that does not require health and safety test data and that discourages voluntary testing. Companies submit only basic toxicity data for fewer than half of all applications for new chemicals, and the government approves 80 percent of these with no use limits and no requests for tests. Eight of 10 new chemicals win approval in less than three weeks, at an average rate of seven a day. [108]

Perhaps worse than our weak controls on new chemicals is the blind eye we turn on the old ones. When TSCA was enacted in 1976, more than 63,000 chemicals already in use were "grandfathered" — granted blanket approval for continued use in consumer and industrial products with absolutely no requirement for further study. Most brominated fire retardants fell into this loophole and won implicit approval for widespread use in consumer products with no required health and safety testing. In 1998, the EPA and the nonprofit organization Environmental Defense reviewed all of the toxicity and environmental fate studies publicly available and found no information — not a single test — for 43 percent of the 2,600 chemicals produced in the highest volumes in the U.S. [108, 109]

The chemical industry has since agreed to do more tests to assess potential toxicity to children for a select number of the most widely use chemicals under the Voluntary Children's Chemical Exposure Program (VCCEP). The three most widely-used PBDE mixtures were included in the first group of 23 chemicals to be assessed as part of this program, but the usefulness of the VCCEP program is highly limited. Its purpose is to make "health effects, exposure, and risk information" of these chemicals available and provide "the means to understand the potential health risks to children." [110] But because the program is voluntary, chemical manufacturers are unlikely to hand over any information that might be damning for their chemical products, nor do they have much incentive to fill any significant scientific data gaps that are identified in the process.

There is no question that fire safety is important and that making products fire-resistant can save lives. Chemical fire retardants have become ubiquitous over the last few decades, but a wide variety of fire safety strategies exist. Using less-flammable materials or changing the product design so that it is inherently more fire resistant, are chemical-free solutions. Using less toxic chemicals as fire retardants is another option.

We do not have to expose our children to toxins to protect them from fire.

Need for biomonitoring

The current system for biomonitoring in the U.S. is highly inadequate for identifying and tracking the multitude of chemicals Americans are accumulating and carrying in our bodies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has conducted two biomonitoring studies that examined up to 116 environmental chemicals in the blood and urine of 2,500 people. [111] But this is just a tiny subset of the thousands of chemicals we are exposed to every day, and will always have a lag-time of several years or more when investigating news of emerging contaminants of concern such as PBDEs or any other brominated fire retardants. Furthermore, the CDC study measured only four chemicals in children younger than six years old and did not look at any contaminants in breast milk, both of which are important for estimating chemical exposures to these most sensitive subpopulations.

In an age where chemical industries are releasing millions of tons of chemicals to the environment and chemical manufacturers gain permission to put more than 2,000 new chemicals into the biosphere each year, we desperately need a better biomonitoring system. Such a system would serve as an early warning system for chemicals that are building up in our bodies, that can track trends in chemicals levels over time, and most importantly, trigger prompt regulatory action when necessary.