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Toxic Fire Retardant Chemical Found in Supermarket Foods

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Published on Thursday, September 2, 2004 by Knight Ridder

Traces of Toxic Chemicals Found in Supermarket Food, Study Says

by Seth Borenstein

WASHINGTON - A wide variety of food in American supermarkets is contaminated
with tiny doses of toxic manmade chemical flame retardants, according to a
new study of everyday groceries released Wednesday.

Samples of grocery stores' fish, pork, duck, turkey, cheese, butter, milk,
chicken, ice cream and eggs were tainted with polybrominated diphenyl
ethers, known as PBDEs, according to a peer-reviewed article in the journal
Environmental Science & Technology.

Because this is a relatively new health concern, no one has studied yet if
PBDEs are harmful to humans and at what levels, the Environmental Protection
Agency's top toxicologist said. However, in animal tests they've harmed the
nervous system, altered hormonal function and changed the development of
reproductive organs. The federal government has ruled that one PBDE in large
doses is a possible human carcinogen.

Wednesday's finding indicates that the group of chemicals - used in
carpeting, electronics and furniture - is getting into people through their
food and remains in the body for several years.

Industry officials said the amounts were too small to worry about.

In the study, scientists found the chemicals in 31 of 32 common and
name-brand groceries in three Dallas stores, which they said should be
typical of most American supermarkets. Only nonfat milk came up clean.
Scientists said animal fat was a big factor.

"It's the first documentation that PBDEs are widespread in food that the
American population would eat and that the concentrations in food are high
enough for a chemical like this that it is going to persist in our bodies,"
study co-author Linda Birnbaum said. She's the EPA's director of
experimental toxicology and the president of the Society of Toxicology, a
professional organization of scientists.

The amounts of PBDEs in U.S. groceries were nine to 20 times higher than
those in foods in grocery stores in Spain and Japan, where not as many PBDEs
are used, the study reported. This matched earlier studies of elevated PBDE
levels in human breast milk, which found American amounts 10 to 100 times
higher than elsewhere, said Arnold Schecter, a University of Texas
environmental sciences professor who co-wrote the most recent study.

"We're documenting it at the highest levels in the world in the United
States, everywhere we look," Schecter said.

He said there were no PBDEs in the human body 40 years ago, before use of
the chemicals began.

Birnbaum said, "The fattier the foods, the more PBDEs you'll get."

Because health officials don't know what levels of PBDEs are safe, Birnbaum
recommends that people follow "heart-healthy" diets, which cut down on fats
that store PBDEs and other toxins.

The amounts of PBDEs found in food ranged from 1 part per trillion for
margarine to 3,078 parts per trillion for salmon.

Those levels are "millions of times below acceptable limits," said Peter
O'Toole, the U.S. director of the Bromine Science and Environment Forum,
which represents the three chemical companies that produce these types of
flame retardants. A person would have to eat 80 tons of cheese a day to
ingest enough of one certain type of PBDE to be harmful, he said, basing his
analysis on a National Academy of Sciences risk assessment in 2000 for that
type of PBDE in the textile industry.

Scientists aren't sure how PBDEs get into food. The theory is that
particles escape from carpets, furniture, computers and televisions into the
air. Those particles fall to the ground and into the water, where animals
consume them. PBDE concentrates in fat as it moves up the food chain.
Scientists didn't test vegetables and fruits, but did find PBDEs in a soy
infant formula.

The EPA convinced the two makers of PBDEs in America to stop producing two
troublesome types of the chemicals by next January. But deca-BDE - which the
federal government has linked to cancer - isn't banned because it's so
crucial to fireproofing electronics, Birnbaum said.

The federal government should get rid of deca-BDE, said Jane Houlihan, the
vice president of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington activist

© 2004 Knight Ridder