Nearly 30 years after the U.S. banned PCBs following proof that the industrial chemical causes cancer and developmental delays, a Northwest Environment Watch (NEW) study released Aug. 25 finds that levels of a similar chemical may be overtaking PCBs.
Levels of toxic flame retardants—PBDEs—found in Pacific Northwest mothers’ breast milk are 20 to 40 times higher than levels in European and Japanese women, the Seattle-based group found. And 30 percent of the 40 Montana, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia moms studied were found to have higher levels of PBDEs than PCBs. PBDEs are chemicals used as flame retardants in household items like furniture, industrial textiles and consumer electronics.
“What this signifies is that PBDEs are emerging as a major health threat,” says NEW’s Lee Sims, who adds that environmental levels of PBDEs have doubled every two to five years and animals like harbor seals and fish have reflected those increases. While PCB effects on people have been documented, Dana Headapohl, medical director of St. Patrick Hospital’s Occupational and Environmental Health Services Department, says no similar human research has been done on PBDEs. Though the two chemicals are similar in structure and may have similar effects, PCBs are thought to enter the body through ingestion of food like fish, while PBDEs are absorbed through household and office dust.
Headapohl, who reviewed the NEW data and has spoken with local doctors about it, says even though it may not be clear how PBDEs affect humans and at what levels, it’s important for mothers to continue breastfeeding because the benefits far outweigh any risks. Sims says breast milk was used for the study because it’s the most easily acquired human fluid, but it’s not just women who carry PBDEs.
Headapohl says people should try to limit their contact with PBDEs, though that can be difficult because they’re so common. Oregon and Washington recently banned two types of PBDEs, and in Montana the 2005 Legislature considered a resolution to support banning the chemical, though it failed.
“There are tens of thousands of chemicals that are widely used,” Headapohl says. “Approximately 15 percent of them have been adequately studied.”