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#736 - Here We Go Again: PBDEs, 24-Oct-2001

A new class of toxic chemicals has been discovered in breast
milk, in human blood, in food, in remote rural air, in wild
fish, and in the sewage sludge being applied as fertilizer on
food crops across the U.S. A Canadian health official recently
summed up the discovery saying, "This stuff is everywhere."[1]

The newly-discovered contaminants are brominated flame
retardants. Bromine is a highly-reactive chemical element, a
halogen in the same class as chlorine and iodine. Worldwide,
eight chemical corporations manufacture about 300 million pounds
of brominated fire retardants each year, of which about 80
million pounds are members of the class known as polybromo
diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.[2] Although all brominated fire
retardants seem capable of creating environment and health
problems, here we will focus on PBDEs, which leach into the
environment from the plastics in appliances, TVs and computers,
foam in upholstery, and the fabrics of carpets and draperies.
Many hard styrene plastics and many foam padding materials are
5% to 30% PBDE by weight.

Like their cousin PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), many PBDEs
persist for years in the environment, accumulate in the food
chain and concentrate in fatty tissues. A recent survey of the
PBDE literature revealed that some PBDEs can cause cancer,
interfere with hormones, and disrupt normal growth and
development in laboratory animals.[3] Recent studies have shown
that these brominated compounds can interfere with the thyroid
hormone, which is critical for the proper development of the
brain and central nervous system in animals and humans. Baby
mice exposed to PBDEs show permanent behavioral and memory
problems, which worsen with age.[3,4]

Because PBDEs are found at very high levels in computers,
carpets and the foam padding inside furniture, the thick dust
covering "ground zero" in lower Manhattan doubtless contains
substantial quantities of PBDEs, so anyone breathing the air
there without proper safety equipment is inhaling these
toxicants. The dust at the site of the World Trade Center
atrocities resulted from "thousands of plastic computers, acres
of flammable carpet, [and] tons of office furniture...."
pulverized when the twin towers and other nearby buildings
collapsed September 11. To make matters worse, a portion of this
high-tech dust is being continuously incinerated by a stubborn
fire smoldering beneath the rubble.[5]

In several "risk assessments" of air pollution hazards at
"ground zero" U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has
concluded that the air in lower Manhattan is safe for workers
and residents,[6] but EPA's risk assessment did not consider
PBDEs (nor did it consider many other chemicals probably present
in that air). Notably, in spite of EPA's assurances of safety,
more than 4000 workers at ground zero have developed chronic chest
pain, a persistent cough now known as "world trade center cough" and
asthma-like (or emphysema-like) breathing problems from exposure
to the air at the disaster site.[7]

EPA has also employed risk assessment to declare the use of
contaminated sewage sludge "safe" as fertilizer on food crops,
but here again EPA did not consider the effects of PBDEs (or
many other chemicals) on the crops, on people eating the crops,
or on the natural environment in which the crops are grown. An
estimated 8 billion pounds of contaminated sewage sludge are
routinely spread onto farmland in the U.S. each year. In July of
this year researchers reported finding high concentrations of
PBDEs in 11 samples of sewage sludge from Virginia, New York and

This of course is one of the unavoidable failings of a
risk-assessment approach to managing toxic chemicals -- you can
only (partially) assess the risks of chemicals that you know a
great deal about. U.S. chemical manufacturers introduce about
1000 new chemicals into commercial use each year with no safety
testing required and little or none done. Typically, safety
testing only begins after industrial chemicals have been
discovered causing harm 10 to 20 years after introduction. Risk
assessments are always "behind the curve" and therefore always
give false assurances of safety.

An alternative to the risk assessment approach is to take
precautionary action as soon as evidence of harm begins to

A recent survey by a group of Scandinavian researchers reports
that PBDE levels have been increasing exponentially in the
environment in Sweden for 30 years and show no sign of leveling
off.[2] Recent studies indicate that the U.S. is far more
contaminated than Sweden. For example, sewage sludge in the U.S.
contains 10 to 100 times as much PBDE as does European
sludge.[8] Other major sources of PBDEs are thought to be
municipal incinerators and landfills.[2] PBDEs can also
volatilize (ooze into the air) out of electrical components,
especially from warm devices such as computers and TV sets.

PBDEs are not very soluble in water, but they dissolve readily
in fat. They are also persistent in the environment (meaning
they break down only slowly). As they move through the food
chain, they concentrate and biomagnify. These are the very
characteristics that have caused other industrial poisons to be
labeled bad actors and yanked from the market, including DDT and

Given these characteristics, it was no surprise when
Scandinavian scientists reported earlier this year that PBDEs
have been increasing exponentially in breast milk in Sweden
since 1972, the concentration doubling every 5 years.[2] The
researchers emphasized that current levels in breast milk, and
in the Swedish diet, are far below the levels known to harm
laboratory animals, but they concluded that "the time trend of
PBDEs in human breast milk is alarming for the future."

No one knows for sure what the effects of PBDEs might be on
developing embryos or suckling infants. (To inform yourself
about the KNOWN consequences of contaminated breast milk, read
Sandra Steingraber's electrifying new book, HAVING FAITH; AN
ECOLOGIST'S JOURNEY TO MOTHERHOOD.[9] It is worth emphasizing
here that breast milk, even laced as it is with low levels of
industrial poisons, is still the best food for infants because
all the alternatives are worse.)

PBDEs are now everywhere. European researchers have found PBDEs
in freshwater and ocean fish (salmon, herring, sprat), in air at
remote rural locations, in sewage sludge, in deep ocean
sediments, in eels, seals, shellfish, bottlenose dolphins,
porpoises, pilot whales, and crabs, among other species. Based
on limited studies, the Great Lakes appear to be among the most
PBDE-contaminated bodies of water in the world, with Lake
Michigan the worst.[2]

Studies in Germany, Holland, Sweden, Japan and the U.S. have
reported the presence of PBDEs in fish, meat, cow's milk, fats/-oils,
and bakery products. Studies of human blood in the U.S.
have revealed PBDEs in all samples.

In 1999 the Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate concluded that, "The
lower-brominated technical PBDE compounds, containing mostly
pentaBDE, are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic in the
aquatic environment. They show effects above all on the liver
but also on thyroid hormone and affect the behaviour of mice.
They occur widely in the environment, in human blood and in
mother's milk."[10] In Sweden, this combination of
characteristics triggers precautionary action to remove such
chemicals from the market. Denmark and the Netherlands have also
taken steps to ban PBDEs.[2,11]

In September the European Union decided to take precautionary
action without waiting for conclusive scientific evidence of
harm. The European Parliament voted September 6 to ban the use,
manufacture, and import of some forms of PBDEs during the next
few years, but the European Council of Ministers must approve
the ban before it becomes law.

Naturally, all such bans will be subject to challenge in the
secret tribunals of the World Trade Organization (WTO) if any of
the world's eight manufacturers of PBDEs decides to fight for
its self-declared "right" to turn a profit by discharging
industrial poisons into the environment. The manufacturers have
reportedly expressed "furious opposition" to the European
ban.[11] One of the main purposes in setting up the WTO was to
allow corporations (acting through pliant governments) to use
"risk assessment"to challenge and repeal the health and safety
regulations of any and all nations. Prior to the WTO,
corporations had no way to challenge the health and safety
policies of all nations simultaneously, so the WTO offers
remarkable new efficiencies in this regard. Risk assessment is
ideally suited for such a purpose, especially when little is
known about the chemicals being assessed. The less is known, the
safer the chemicals can be made to appear -- just as with the
air at ground zero.

The U.S. government has no regulations governing the
manufacture, use, or disposal of PBDEs, and has announced no
plans to initiate regulations. U.S. chemical policy is still in
a primitive state, guided by the philosophy, "Don't ask, don't

PBDEs are similar in chemical form, and in many of their
actions, to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which are among
the most dangerous and persistent chemicals ever let loose by
corporate imprudence. The U.S. banned PCBs in 1976, when much
less was known about PCBs than is known about PBDEs today. But
our political situation is far different today than it was in
1976. Corporations today are much more powerful and governments
are substantially weaker. Corporations have succeeded in
embedding risk assessment into all U.S. government
decision-making processes, so precautionary action is nearly
inconceivable within most agencies of government. The public is
much better informed, but its democratic institutions (public
schools, the press, the judiciary, Congress and the executive
branch) have been hijacked by corporate money and now mainly
serve powerful elites, regardless of the general welfare.

Within 10 to 15 years PBDEs will have surpassed PCBs as
environmental hazards. Breast milk studies indicate that the
danger to infants and children is rapidly rising. Who will lead
this fight to allow us to take precautionary action against the
corporate poisoners?

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Charlotte Shubert, "Burned by FlameRretardants?" SCIENCE
NEWS Vol. 160 (October 13, 2001), pgs. 238-239.

[2] Per Ola Darnerud and others, "Polybrominated Diphenyl
Ethers: Occurrence, Dietary Exposure, and Toxicology,"
2001), pgs. 49-68.

[3] Kim Hooper and Thomas A. McDonald, "The PBDEs: An Emerging
Environmental Challenge and Another Reason for Breast-Milk
108, No. 5 (May 2000), pgs. 387-392.

[4] Per Eriksson and others, "Brominated Flame Retardants: A
Novel Class of Developmental Neurotoxicants in Our Environment?"
2001), pgs. 903-908.

[5] Eric Lipton and Andrew C. Revkin, "With Water and Sweat,
Fighting the Most Stubborn Fire," NEW YORK TIMES November 19,
2001, page unknown. Available at http://www.nytimes.com.

[6] Diane Cardwell, "A Nation Challenged: Lower Manhattan;
Workers and Residents Are Safe, Officials Say," NEW YORK TIMES
Nov. 2, 2001, pg. unknown. Available at www.nytimes.com.

[7] Robert Worth, "A Nation Challenged: The Site; Citing Safety,
City Will Cut Work Force For Recovery," NEW YORK TIMES November
1, 2001, pg. unknown. Available at www.nytimes.com.

[8] Robert C. Hale and others, "Persistent pollutants in
land-applied sludges," NATURE Vol. 412 (July 12, 2001), pgs.

[9] Sandra Steingraber, HAVING FAITH (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus
Publishing, 2001). ISBN 0-7382-0467-6.

[10] KemI, "KemI proposes a prohibition of flame retardants,"
March 15, 1999. See

[11] Environment News Service, "EU Lawmakers Vote Broad Fire
Retardant Ban," September 6, 2001. See http://www.ens-

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