An unregulated toxic chemical found in breast milk for the first time

An unregulated toxic flame retardant called bromophenol accumulates in the breast milk of American mothers, while levels of other regulated flame retardants decrease over time, according to a study published today in Environmental pollution.

Brominated flame retardants, or brominated flame retardants, are toxic chemicals often used in electronics and devices to prevent combustion. These chemicals accumulate in human tissues and have been associated with adverse health effects such as decreased fertility and impaired brain development. The new study finds that breast milk levels of banned flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, have fallen since researchers last measured them a decade ago, suggesting that regulating PBDEs has been a health success. the public. But bromophenol, another type of brominated flame retardant, was discovered for the first time, demonstrating the need for regulators to restrict the entire class of chemicals.

“When we ban the use of persistent toxic chemicals … we make breast milk safer for babies,” said Erica Schrader, author of the scientific paper and director of science for Toxic-Free Future, a research and advocacy group.

Flame retardants accumulated in human bodies

Schrader and her team tested BFR levels in the breast milk of 50 US mothers. They found 25 different flame retardants in breast milk and detected PBDEs in each sample. However, the levels of PBDEs found in breast milk were much lower than what scientists had measured before all PBDEs were banned in the United States in 2013.

Bromophenol, a largely unregulated bromine flame retardant, appeared in 88% of breast milk samples. Companies began using bromophenols after other brominated flame retardants, such as PBDEs, were banned. “What a lot of companies did when PBDEs were being phased out, instead of looking for a safer chemical to make sure their products were safe, they started using harmful chemicals in the same class of the chemical that they were phasing out,” Schrader said. “. Environmental Health News (EHN).

The detection of brominated flame retardants in breast milk is particularly worrisome for infants, since the chemicals disrupt many human developmental processes. “Any time we see a chemical build up in breast milk, we know that babies are exposed during some of the most vulnerable parts of their lives. We have to pay special attention,” Schrader said. Research has shown that babies who were exposed to PBDEs before birth, although For example, they have lower cognitive abilities in early childhood.

Flame retardant protection

Schrader said that while children are primarily exposed to brominated flame retardants through breast milk, exposure to adults usually occurs through inhalation or accidental ingestion of dust containing the chemical. Regular vacuuming, dusting and hand washing can be a very effective way to prevent exposure. A 2019 study found, for example, that just one week of increased hand washing or house cleaning was enough to reduce one’s exposure to flame retardants by half.

One of the main sources of PBDEs in the home comes from old furniture, said Heather Stapleton, a professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University. EHN. She said removing or replacing furniture manufactured before 2005 can help reduce one’s exposure.

It might also help to get companies to phase out BFR use, or to refuse to sell BFR-containing products. Best Buy, the second-largest consumer electronics retailer in North America, already bans the use of BFRs in its own-brand televisions, but it still allows other brand-name products that contain BFRs to be sold in its stores. Toxic-Free Future launched a petition today to Best Buy asking it to limit toxic flame retardants in the products it sells. Best Buy did not respond to a request for comment.

But Schrader said that in addition to individual and corporate actions, organizational changes are needed. Specifically, it proposes the need to ban all organohalogen flame retardants, including brominated flame retardants, as a class of chemicals, rather than banning single toxic chemicals one by one.

“It’s very important when we regulate harmful chemicals that we do so on a category basis, so we can avoid the problem of companies switching to a similar chemical with similar harms,” ​​she said. “We desperately need policies that ensure chemicals and products are known to be safe.”

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