The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

A flame retardant building up in mothers’ milk

Feb 4, 2002

A chemical flame retardant used in foam furniture is today showing up in mothers’ milk. The chemical is polybrominated diphenyl ether, known as PBDE. It is known to have effects on the development of the brain and nervous system, as well as on the body’s thyroid system. The danger has recently been pointed out in this country in an article written by Robert Hale, a professor of marine science, and five other scientists, in the magazine Nature.

PBDE doesn’t easily breakdown naturally. Entering the environment through, among other ways, discarded furniture, it is ingested by insects, which are in turn eaten by animals, which are in turn eaten by bigger animals. PBDE is like DDT and PCBs, which also accumulated along the food chain and posed serious health problems.

This chemical has been found in a range of species, including fish and sperm whales – which shows that it has spread into the depths of the ocean. And traces of it have been found in frozen land as far away as extreme northern Canada and eastern Siberia.

In recent years, DDT and PCBs – now banned – have been decreasing, while PBDE has been on the increase. The level of PBDE in mothers’ milk is today 40 times as high as it was in 1972.

In Europe there is a move to ban use of the chemical. The German chemical industry voluntarily banned the chemical as long ago as 1986. The European Union has issued a Human Health Risk Assessment recommendation calling for the end of use of the chemical.

The United States seems to be lagging way behind. Not only hasn’t PBDE been banned, no authorities have started a process leading in that direction.

The U.S. chemical industry has rallied around Great Lakes Chemical, the only U.S. company to make PBDE, saying more studies are needed. This was what the chemical industry argued for years about DDT and PCBs, until long after there could be no doubt of the damage they were doing to animal and human life.

Unfortunately, the attitude of government has always been to require near absolute proof of danger before a chemical can be banned – as opposed to the reasonable approach, requiring proof that a chemical is safe before it’s authorized for sale.