Unregulated, toxic flame retardants called bromophenols are building up in breast milk from U.S. mothers, while levels of other regulated flame retardants are decreasing over time, according to a study published today in Environmental Pollution.
Brominated flame retardants, or BFRs, are toxic chemicals often used in electronics and appliances to prevent burning. These chemicals accumulate in human tissue and have been linked to adverse health effects such as reduced fertility and impaired brain development. The new study found that breast milk levels of banned flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, have decreased since researchers last measured them a decade ago, suggesting that regulation of PBDEs has been a public health success. But bromophenols, another type of BFR, were detected for the first time, showing the need for regulators to restrict the whole class of chemicals.
“When we prohibit the use of persistent toxic chemicals…we make breast milk safer for babies,” said in a statement Erika Schreder, an author on the paper and science director with Toxic-Free Future, a research and advocacy group.
Flame retardants accumulating in human bodies
Schreder and her team tested the levels of BFRs in breast milk from 50 U.S. mothers. They found 25 different flame retardants in the breast milk and detected PBDEs in every sample. However, the levels of PBDEs found in breast milk were much lower than scientists had measured before all PBDEs were banned in the U.S. in 2013.
Bromophenols, a largely unregulated BFR, showed up in 88% of the breast milk samples. Companies started to use bromophenols after other BFRs, such as PBDEs, were banned. “What a lot of companies did when PBDEs were phased out was, instead of hunting for a safer chemical to make sure that their products were safe, they started using harmful chemicals in the same class as the phased-out chemical,” Schreder told Environmental Health News (EHN).
The detection of BFRs in breast milk is particularly concerning for infants, since the chemicals disrupt many human development processes. “Anytime we see a chemical building up in breast milk, we know that babies are being exposed during some of the most vulnerable parts of their lives. And we have to pay special attention,” said Schreder. Research has shown that babies exposed to PBDEs before birth, for example, have lower cognitive abilities in early childhood.
Protecting against flame retardants
While babies are primarily exposed to BFRs through breast milk, exposure for adults typically happens through inhalation or accidental ingestion of dust that contains the chemical, Schreder said. Regular vacuuming, dusting and hand-washing can be a highly effective way to prevent exposure. One 2019 study, for example, found that just one week of increased hand washing or house cleaning was enough to reduce one’s exposure to flame retardants by half.
One main source of PBDEs in the home comes from old furniture, Heather Stapleton, a professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University, told EHN. Removing or replacing furniture manufactured before about 2005 can help reduce one’s exposure, she said.
Getting companies to phase out the use of BFRs, or to refuse to sell products that contain the, could also help. Best Buy, the second-largest consumer retailer of electronics in North America, already bans the use of BFRs in its own branded TVs, but still allows other branded products that contain BFRs to be sold in its stores. Toxic-Free Future launched a petition today to Best Buy asking them to further restrict toxic flame retardants in the products it sells. Best Buy did not respond to a request for comment.
But in addition to individual and corporate actions, regulatory changes are needed, Schreder said. Specifically, she suggests the need for banning all organohalogen flame retardants, including BFRs, 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 class basis, so that we can avoid the problem of companies switching out for a similar chemical with similar harms,” she said. “We desperately need policies that will ensure that chemicals and products are known to be safe.”