By Dr. Becker
Flame-retardant chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are widely used to make plastic products, electronics, carpeting, furniture, and more.
Linked to health problems including cancer, reproductive problems, hormone disruption, and neurobehavioral effects, they’re both persistent in the environment and bio-accumulative, which means exposed wildlife can be at serious risk.
The chemicals, which can make up to 30 percent of a product’s weight, are not chemically bound to products. This allows them to easily leach out into the environment when the products are disposed of.1
PBDEs are also a common contaminant of household dust, which can eventually make its way into soil and water. As reported by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):2
“These characteristics have led to rapid bioaccumulation of PBDEs in human and animal fat tissue, and caused widespread concern about their potential impact on human and ecological health.”
High Levels of PBDEs Found in Canadian Birds of Prey
Canada restricted the use of flame-retardant chemicals in the mid-2000s, but they’re still posing an environmental risk. Researchers have detected high levels of flame retardants in Canadian hawks and falcons, including one Cooper’s hawk with the highest-ever recorded level: 197,000 parts per billion (ppb) of PBDE.3
On average, researchers found levels of nearly 1,900 ppb in Cooper’s hawks from Greater Vancouver. Because the chemicals accumulate in the environment, top predators are most at risk of consuming dangerously high levels.
For instance, hawks feed on starlings, which may be contaminated with PBDEs from consuming human garbage or waste.4 The researchers explained:5
“The concentrations of some contaminants, PBDEs in particular, in these birds of prey may have some toxicological consequences. Apex predators in urban environments continue to be exposed to elevated concentrations of legacy pollutants as well as more recent brominated pollutants.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also found high levels of flame retardants in eagles living in Washington and Idaho.6 Carol Kraege, toxics policy coordinator with the Washington State Department of Ecology, told Take Part:7
“We’re seeing toxic chemicals show up years after they were banned, so we know they linger for quite some time… This is a legacy of using this type of chemical. So we need to think carefully as a society about using them, because once they get out, they are really hard to control.”
What are the Risks of PBDEs in the Environment?
PBDEs are structurally similar to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are now banned but formerly were used for many industrial purposes (including electrical oils, lubricants, adhesives, and paints).
In addition to causing cancer and adverse effects to the immune system, PCBs are endocrine-disrupting chemicals capable of harming the reproductive system. PBDEs display similar health effects, and may even work in concert with PCBs, heightening their negative effects.8
As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported, PBDEs, even at low levels, appear to pose a significant health risk to developing animals and have been linked to the following conditions:9
Thyroid hormone disruption Permanent learning and memory impairment Behavioral changes Hearing deficits Delayed puberty onset Decreased sperm count Fetal malformations Cancer
Is Your Pet at Risk From Flame Retardants in Your Home?
It’s not only wildlife that’s being exposed to these dangerous chemicals. Because flame retardants are found in so many household products, and they easily leach out of these products with everyday use, household dust is a major source of exposure.
This means that not only are you and your children being exposed but so are your pets. Housecats, for instance, are primarily exposed to flame-retardant chemicals by ingesting house dust – which of course occurs every time they groom themselves.
This exposure, in turn, is thought to be a major contributing factor to the growing rates of thyroid disease in cats. Dogs, too, are being affected and were found to have up to 10 times higher blood concentrations of PBDEs than humans (cats were found to have 20 to 100 times higher levels).10
It seems dogs metabolize these chemicals faster than cats do. In addition, dogs produce an enzyme that breaks down organochlorine pesticides, and researchers theorize something similar could be going on with the breakdown of PBDEs.
Some Tests Suggest PBDE Levels in Wildlife are on the Decline
There may be at least a small light at the end of the tunnel. In the San Francisco Bay, once a “hot spot” of PBDE contamination, levels appear to be on the decline since the phase out of PBDEs in 2003.
While extremely high levels of the chemicals were once detected in harbor seals, Forster’s tern eggs and sportfish (as well as in women living nearby), levels have since dropped dramatically, according to research from the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI). As noted by KQED Science:11
“The SFEI study showed that concentration of PBDEs in the terns has dropped 80% between 2002 and now. Double-crested cormorants that also nest around the bay have tested for similar declines in contamination.
Sport fish contamination has declined about 50%. Mussels and mud contamination have also been reduced. Similar declines were shown for humans, too.”
How to Keep PBDE Exposure to a Minimum in Your Home
Needless to say, it’s a good idea to minimize your exposure to these chemicals as much as possible, for your own sake and for your pet’s. The tips that follow can help reduce exposures where they likely occur most of all… in your home:
- Polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses, and pillows, are likely to contain PBDEs, so inspect them carefully and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down. Also, avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure.
- Older carpet padding is another major source of PBDEs, so take precautions when removing old carpet. You'll want to isolate your work area from the rest of your house to avoid spreading it around, and use a HEPA filter vacuum to clean up.
- You probably have older sources of the PBDEs known as Deca in your home as well, and these are so toxic they are banned in several states. Deca PBDEs can be found in electronics like TVs, cell phones, kitchen appliances, fans, toner cartridges, and more. It's a good idea to wash your hands after handling such items, especially before eating, and at the very least be sure you don't let infants or pets mouth any of these items (like your TV remote control or cell phone).
- Look for organic and "green" building materials, carpeting, pet items, baby items, and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals. Furniture products filled with cotton, wool, or polyester tend to be safer than chemical-treated foam; some products also state that they are "flame-retardant free."
- PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.
- As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, and cotton. This is particularly important for items you or your pet sit or sleep on for many hours each day.