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Flame Retardants Found in Mothers' Breast Milk in U.S.  

www.sfgate.com

Study finds flame-retardant chemical in U.S. breast milk
Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
San Francisco Chronicle

URL:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/09/23/MN285358.DTL


A common chemical flame retardant was found in the breast milk of 20 U. S. women at levels that were much higher than those found in European women, according to a study by an environmental advocacy group.

The report by the Environmental Working Group recommends that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ban the use of PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, some of which are already prohibited in the European Union.

California's recent decision to phase out by 2008 two industrial mixtures of PBDEs -- penta and octa -- is not protective enough and may result in the use of 365 million additional pounds in the interim, said the Washington, D.C., nonprofit, which is releasing the report today.

The EPA had not yet seen the results of the Environmental Working Group study, said David Deegan, an EPA spokesman. "PBDEs have been looked at a number of times. The EPA has not concluded the need for regulatory action, but we are continuing to evaluate them."

PBDEs are fire retardants used in soft polyurethane foam in furniture and in textiles and carpets as well as in hard plastic computers, home appliances and dashboards.

Research on PBDEs in laboratory animals link exposure to thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and memory impairment, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations, behavioral changes, hearing deficits and possibly cancer.

"The fire retardants are now found in house dust, sewage sludge and the water and sediments of rivers, estuaries and oceans. They've been found in the tissues of whales, seals, birds and bird eggs, moose, reindeer, mussels and dozens of species of freshwater and marine fish," including in the North Sea, Baltic Sea and Arctic Ocean, the study said.

There is a worldwide trend of the retardants building up rapidly in the environment since their first use in the 1960s. The levels in San Francisco Bay's harbor seals have increased 100 times in the last 10 years.

Scientists fear that PBDEs will pose the same environmental nightmare as the banned PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyl ethers, because they're similar in molecular structure. They accumulate in humans and wildlife, where they can injure the central nervous system.

Between November and June, the Environmental Working Group studied 20 women from 14 states, including three from the Bay Area, who had hand-pumped their breast milk within several months after the birth of their babies. The levels ranged from 9.5 to 1,078 parts per billion in milk fat with an average level of 159 parts per billion.

All of the participants had higher levels than those detected in studies of European women, and more than 50 times higher than the average of those in a Swedish study published in 2003.

When Oakland resident Katrina Friedman, 31, agreed to join the study, she assumed that her healthy diet, yoga and a clean job at Hot Studio, a small San Francisco design firm, was producing chemical-free milk for her baby daughter, Ruby.

But Friedman had PBDE levels in her milk at 79 parts per billion, higher than the number that triggered a ban of the flame retardants in Europe.

"I love my child more than anything. I want to protect her from broken glass, bullies at school and invisible poisons like this one. But I'm powerless. These chemicals aren't banned in the United States, and we're just continuing to add them in the environment," Friedman said.

Her partner, Brian Alcorn, was just as shocked at her results. "He was glad that I took part in the study. It's studies like this that bring these issues to light. The purest act -- nursing your baby -- is no longer pure."

Citing health concerns over the discovery of PBDEs, the European Union earlier this year called for penta and octa mixtures to be phased out by August 2004. A third mixture of PBDE, called deca, is still under review.

The Environmental Working Group said new studies indicate that compounds contained in deca can convert to penta in the environment and should also have been phased out in Europe and California. Industry officials say deca doesn't transform to penta.

Representatives of the two largest U.S. manufacturers of PBDEs, the Great Lakes Chemical Co. in Indianapolis and Albermarle Corp. in Richmond, Va., said Monday there were no peer-reviewed data that show that the chemicals cause ill health effects in humans.

Anne Noonan, vice president of market technology and advocacy for Great Lakes, said, "It's not surprising that the higher levels would be found in the United States than in Europe. The major market for penta has always been in the U.S."

Penta has worked well as a fire retardant, and can be used in the softer, less dense foam popular in U.S. furniture, she said.

Her company has developed a substitute for PBDEs, a bromine phosphorous- based flame retardant that is under review by the EPA. The contractors hired to study the product say it's not toxic or persistent and it doesn't accumulate in organisms, she said.

Penta, octa and deca are all under review in the EPA's Voluntary Children's Chemical Exposure Program. Earlier this year the companies submitted scientific data for review.

According to its Web site, the Environmental Working Group is a "research organization dedicated to improving public health and protecting the environment by reducing pollution in air, water and food."

The study may be found at www.ewg.org.

E-mail Jane Kay at jkay@sfchronicle.com.

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