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PBDE: The Health Costs of Fire Safety
[Rachel's Introduction: There is a price living organisms pay for the fire safety flame retardants provide. The precautionary principle warrants more investigation into the use of flame retardants. While the chance of a fire is slim, the chance of exposure to PBDEs is much greater.]
Author Name: 
By Lourdes Salvador
Most people are led to believe that flame retardants are good, that they protect us from harm by reducing the chance of fire. However on deeper investigation, information published in the Lancet indicates there is more to fire retardants than meets the eye.

There is a price living organisms pay for the fire safety flame retardants provide. The precautionary principle warrants more investigation into the use of flame retardants, particularly polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). While the chance of a fire is slim, the chance of exposure to PBDEs is much greater.

PBDEs are a group of brominated compounds used as flame retardants since the 1970s. PBDEs are added to furniture, textiles, and electronic equipment as a flame retardant when these goods are manufactured.

Some PBDEs are in the process of being phased out in the United States, however many consumer goods remain in homes and workplaces that contain these PBDEs.

Human Exposure Pathways

Studies have found increasing PBDE concentrations in breast milk, showing that it not only enters the human body, but is passed on to infants through feeding. PBDEs concentrations in infants are often greater than in adults, indicating PBDE bioaccumulates and passes from mother to child.

Research has shown a strong positive correlation between the concentration of PBDEs in breast milk and that of household dust. This indicates that PBDEs from products within our homes are contaminating dust, and likely airspace as well.

Children are much more vulnerable to this exposure for two reasons. First, they have a smaller body size and the same exposure is more concentrated for their size. Second, children have an increased frequency of hand-to-mouth contact. The risk of averse affects is greater during the early stages of childhood development.

Adverse Effects

Though data is still lacking, scientists do know that PBDE toxicity affects thyroid function. It also alters neurotransmitter function in the brain, leading to cognitive and neurological deficits.

Juhasz and his colleagues concluded their review of PBDEs in the Lancet by summarizing that "the challenge for environmental health professionals is to enhance the understanding of factors that affect the fate, transport, and bioavailability of PBDEs in indoor environments, to develop biomarkers for the assessment of exposure to PBDEs, and to elucidate the effect of such exposure in susceptible populations." In the meantime, doesn't common sense indicate we should avoid PBDEs?

Reference

Juhasz, AL, Smith, E, & Weber, J. Brominated flame retardants-safety at what cost? The Lancet. December 1, 2007 -- December 7, 2007;370(9602):1813,

Lourdes Salvador volunteers as a writer and social advocate for the recognition of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). She was a passionate advocate for the homeless and worked with her local governor to provide services to the homeless through a new approach she created to end homelessness. That passion soon turned to advocacy and activism for people with MCS and the medical professionals who serve them. She co-founded MCS Awareness in 2005 and went on to found MCS America in 2006. She serves as a partner for Environmental Education Week, a partner for the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), and a supporter for the American Cancer Society: Campaign for Smokefree Air.

Copyrighted 2008 MCS America

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