THE NEXT CHEMICAL X? – PART 2
Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers in a Flame Retardant World
Continued from here.
PBDEs—sometimes referred to as brominated flame retardants—were discovered and first used in the late 1970s. For the past 30 years, in increasing amounts, these flame retardants have been applied to most electronic appliances, computers, upholstery, carpet, carpet padding, lighting, wiring, building materials, furniture and industrial paint. Some 149 million pounds of PBDEs were used in the manufacture of goods in North America in 2001. That equals fifty percent of the world’s use.
Every year, fire kills more than 3,000 people, injures 20,000 more, and results in over $11 billion in property damage in the United States alone, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Still, because of laws requiring the presence of flame retardant chemicals in many industrial and consumer products—because of chemicals such as PBDEs—these numbers are greatly reduced from 25 years ago. PBDEs have saved lives, prevented harm, and reduced the economic cost of fires.
Now, the requisite harmful side effects of PBDE – that which would secure it as the successor of the chemical X crown – are slowly being exposed. Though the toxic effects of PBDEs are increasingly recognized, as we shall see, they have not yet been proven to directly lead to illness in humans. Some varieties of PBDEs have been banned; some are scheduled to be banned. Others continue to be manufactured. Chemical X—today it is PBDE—has found its way into our environment, again.
For the past 20 years, scientists have been slowly recognizing an alarming rise in PBDE levels in humans, in wildlife, and in soils around the world.
“Everyone we’ve tested is exposed. And the levels go from high to very high in the United States,” says Dr. Arnold Schecter, a researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Dallas.
In 2003, Dr. Schecter and his colleagues analyzed the levels of PBDEs in human breast milk samples taken from a milk bank in Austin, Texas and a community health center in Dallas, Texas. Their findings raised concern among the scientists: the levels of PBDE constituents measured in their samples were similar to previous levels found in blood, but were 10 to 100 times greater than breast milk levels previously found in European studies. Still, the question remained just how the general population was being exposed to these chemicals, and how the intake of these compounds was taking place.
In their most recent study, Dr. Schecter and colleagues sought to answer that very question. They worked from the hypothesis that PBDEs, like their cousins PCBs, accumulate in humans through the intake of foods with high animal fat content. Both chemicals are known to be fat-soluble, which would lead them to be absorbed by fatty tissue. Studying the levels of PBDEs in foods taken directly from supermarket shelves in Dallas, Texas, their findings indicate that food may be a major route of intake for these toxic compounds.
Samples of the grocery stores’ fish, pork, duck, turkey, cheese, butter, milk, ice cream, and eggs were tainted with PBDEs. Only non-fat milk was clean. In total, 31 of the 32 samples of common and name-brand groceries taken from the store were found to contain the compound, with fish products containing the highest amounts, followed by meats and dairy products.
“We’re finding that US blood and milk have the highest levels in the world; food has the highest level in the world. Every person and every food product is contaminated,” Dr. Schecter says.
Could it be that Texas, and the surrounding regions, are simply prone to PBDE exposure? After all, the world’s two largest PBDE manufacturers, Great Lakes Chemical and Albermarle Chemical—producing 98% of all PBDE compounds—are located just north and east of the state. Great Lakes Chemical, with its headquarters in Indianapolis, has several manufacturing facilities in Arkansas; Albermarle Chemical, headquartered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has facilities in Arkansas and in Houston.
The definitive answer is no; Texas is no more susceptible to PBDE contamination than any other part of the world. And for proof of this we must travel half way around the globe.
Part 3 coming soon.