September 23, 2003

Mother's Milk: What you can do

EWG's tests of mothers' milk are the latest evidence that Americans are being exposed to potentially harmful levels of toxic fire retardants. The bad news is that efforts by both government and private industry in the U.S. are lagging behind Europe, which has already phased out some fire retardants and is studying the toxic effects of others. The good news is that European studies show that levels of fire retardants in the human body begin to decline relatively quickly if exposure is reduced. That means that prompt action by government agencies and the companies that make or use fire retardants can make a difference. To some extent, personal actions can also reduce your exposure.

What should government do?

  • The U.S. EPA should phase out all PBDEs and other toxic fire retardants as quickly as possible. California has already moved to ban some PBDEs in 2008, and Massachusetts is considering a similar law. In the interim, all products containing PBDEs should be labeled so that consumers have the option of choosing products without them.
  • EPA must screen all new and existing chemicals for their health effects. In particular, potential replacement fire retardants must be adequately tested to ensure that they are not persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic. Testing must include the outcomes most relevant to children's health. Changes in product design that decrease the need for chemical fire retardants should be encouraged over simply switching to a different, less studied chemical.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should expand the fledgling national biomonitoring program to include a greater number of chemicals and people. The study provides critical data in identifying chemicals that are accumulating in our bodies and in the environment; tracking trends in exposure; providing data needed to more fully understand human health risks; and helping EPA and other agencies effectively transition businesses to safer, less persistent chemicals than those in current common use.
  • Congress should increase funding for urgently needed additional research on toxic fire retardants, including their health effects, how they get into the human body, and current levels of accumulation in people, animals and the environment.

What should private industry do?

In the absence of government regulation, U.S. manufacturers and users of chemical fire retardants should voluntarily comply with the European ban. Chemical companies should work to minimize the toxicity of existing fire retardants and thoroughly test replacement chemicals for safety. Companies who use fire retardants in their products should follow the lead of some computer makers, who are redesigning their products so that fire retardants are not needed. Retailers should follow the example of IKEA and some other companies in demanding that their suppliers avoid the use of chemical fire retardants.

What should parents and other concerned consumers do?

Our homes and offices are filled with brominated fire retardants in products including foam-padded furniture, computer and television screens, and the padding underneath our carpets. Our study found that exposure to brominated fire retardants is unavoidable. We detected them in the body of every participant, regardless of their occupation, diet, or lifestyle.

Even if these toxic fire retardants were phased out immediately, our exposures to them would continue through the foods we eat or from the products in our households. In the absence of government safeguards to remove persistent toxins from household products, or label products containing the most toxic forms of fire retardants, parents should consider the following options:

  • Avoid degraded or crumbing foam that might contain fire retardants. Replace or cover couches, stuffed chairs, automobile seats that have exposed foam. Do reupholster padded furniture in homes where children or pregnant women live.
  • Be careful when removing and replacing the foam padding beneath your carpet. Remove old carpet padding from your home and clean up well when finished.
  • Buy products with natural fibers (cotton and wool) which are naturally fire resistant.

Many other persistent pollutants, some banned for decades, still contaminate the environment and end up in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Recently, EWG has reported on the presence of toxic chemicals in a wide range of consumer products including foam-padded furniture, food wrappers and winter-time lettuce. In the case of toxic fire retardants, chemical companies have fought proposals that they label their products to give consumers information about the chemicals in consumer products.

Yet exposures to many persistent pollutants can be reduced through a varied diet that contains fewer meat and high fat dairy products. Other chemical exposures, like toxic substances in household cleaners, can be avoided altogether. It is especially important for children, pregnant or breastfeeing mothers or women considering pregnancy to avoid chemical exposures. Some simple tips for reducing exposures to, or impacts of, industrial chemicals are:

  • Breastfeed your child! Breastfeeding offers significant health benefits to both mother and infant. In addition, breast milk contains beneficial compounds such as Omega-3 fatty acids that are not found in infant formula and support optimal infant development, particularly for body systems most affected by PCBs, lead, and other toxic chemicals.
  • Eat fewer processed foods, which often contain chemical additives.
  • Eat organic produce. It's free of pesticides and preservative chemicals.
  • Don't microwave food in plastic containers. Use glass or ceramics.
  • Run your tap water through a home filter before drinking. Filters can reduce levels of common tap water pollutants.
  • Eat fewer meat and high fat dairy products, which contain higher levels of some pollutants.
  • Reduce the number of cosmetics and other personal care products you use, which can contain harmful chemicals and can be sold with no safety testing.
  • Avoid artificial fragrances.
  • Don't use stain repellants on clothing, bedding or upholstery.
  • Reduce the number of household cleaners you use. Try soap and water first.
  • Avoid using gasoline-powered yard tools — use manual or electric tools instead.
  • Avoid breathing gasoline fumes when you're filling your car.
  • Eat seafood known to be low in PCB and mercury contamination, including wild Alaska salmon and canned salmon. Avoid canned tuna — it contains mercury.