Los Angeles Times
August 25, 2003


Studies indicate the widely used chemicals affect sexual as
well as brain development.

By Marla Cone

Flame retardants, already linked to effects on the brain, can
also alter sex hormones, reducing male fertility and disrupting
ovary development, according to scientific studies to be
released this week.

Environmental scientists gathering in Boston for an
international conference are revealing the results of about 100
new studies showing that the contaminants, which accumulate in
breast milk, have spread worldwide and are a greater threat to
children and fetuses than earlier research indicated.

Although California has a new law that will ban two types of
PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, in 2008, experts warn
that the chemicals are expected to keep growing in the U.S.
environment and human bodies for years to come. Only California
and the European Union have restricted their use.

Also, for the first time, scientists are reporting evidence
that another flame retardant -- not subject to any regulation --
poses similar hazards to people and wildlife. The retardant,
deca BDE, is used in large volumes in TV sets and computers.

A variety of new studies shows that deca BDE is also
accumulating in breast milk and is increasing in the
environment, even in remote Arctic lakes. About 100 million
pounds of the compound are applied each year to electronics
equipment. Because it is not subject to restrictions anywhere
in the world, more of it is in use than any other flame

About 1,000 scientists -- mostly from North America, Europe and
Japan -- are gathered at the Dioxin 2003 conference, which is
designed to share research on contaminants that persist in the
environment and accumulate in human bodies and in wildlife.

Many scientists warn that the chemicals pose a toxic threat
that is unprecedented since DDT and PCBs were outlawed in the
U.S. in the 1970s. Experts are especially concerned about high
exposures in the United States, where the flame retardants are
most heavily used.

"These chemicals have been shown to be taken up by the body.
They hang around a long time and they accumulate. Even when we
stop using them, we will have a legacy that will take years to
go away. Decades, probably," said Linda Birnbaum, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency's director of experimental
toxicology. The EPA says it is evaluating the risks of the
compounds but has no plans to regulate them.

Chemical industry representatives say that the flame retardants
are credited with saving thousands of lives worldwide because
they have been proved to slow the spread of flames in furniture
and electronics. Chemical companies support the California ban
on penta and octa PBDEs, used mostly in furniture, but say the
restriction of the deca compound used in electronics is

Peter O'Toole, a spokesman for the Bromine Scientific and
Environmental Forum -- an industry group representing companies
that manufacture PBDEs -- said the "weight of the evidence
clearly supports the safety" of deca and that several U.S.
agencies previously have said it poses no significant risk.

Many scientists gathered at the conference are calling for a
more detailed investigation into the amounts and sources of
flame retardants in Americans and their food -- particularly
fish, meat and dairy products -- and for research that looks for
effects in human infants as well as adults. U.S. research has
been limited compared to work done in Europe and Canada.

One new study of women in Texas concludes that U.S. women
contain "extremely elevated" levels of PBDEs, which "raises
concern for potential toxicity to nursing infants," according
to the research led by the University of Texas Health Science

Environmental concentrations are doubling on average every four
years in the United States and Canada. Some women are
approaching levels that have harmed newborn animals' developing
brains in laboratory tests, scientists say.

Previously, scientists had reported that when small doses of
PBDEs used in upholstered furniture and bedding were fed to
newborn rodents, it disrupted their thyroid hormones, which
guide how the brain develops. That raises concerns that the
PBDEs could be causing subtle changes in the intelligence,
memory and hearing of human babies, because the hormones
control their brain development too.

At this week's conference, German scientists are reporting that
even smaller doses fed to newborn lab animals alter their
reproductive development as well, apparently by interfering
with estrogen hormones. Studies by Berlin's Freie Universitat
show that the flame retardants are toxic to the female rodents'
ovaries and reduce the males' reproductive performance,
Birnbaum said.

Stockholm University environmental chemist Aake Bergman, who is
chairing a session on flame retardants at the Boston
conference, said the German studies "indicate a hitherto
unknown effect."

In the 1990s, research by Bergman and other Swedish scientists
prompted European industries to voluntarily phase out the two
types of PBDEs, and, as a result, levels in breast milk there
are declining.

In the United States, however, studies of several hundred
people show that women in Indianapolis, Texas and the San
Francisco Bay Area have 10 to 100 times more PBDEs in their
breast milk and blood than European women. No one knows how the
contaminants are getting into human bodies or why some U.S.
women are more highly exposed than others living in the same

PBDEs gradually accumulate in human fat and, in pregnant women,
pass into the womb and enter the fetus. Babies are highly
exposed before birth, and then get an added dose from breast
milk. Nonetheless, doctors say women should continue to
breast-feed their infants because of the known benefits.

New studies conducted in Europe and Canada report that the
compounds are in indoor dust and rural septic tanks. That could
mean the source of contamination in people's bodies is
furniture or electronics equipment in their houses or offices.

"My theory is that the exposure is coming through ordinary
homes," Bergman said.

The research implicating deca BDE is stirring the most
objections from the chemical industry, which has said that the
chemical is benign. Industry groups long have said that it does
not accumulate in the environment or human bodies and that
there are no proven health risks.

Derek Muir, a research scientist at Canada's National Water
Research Institute, has found the deca compound in the
sediments of remote lakes in the Canadian Arctic. Muir said
although the common wisdom is that the chemical is not mobile,
it apparently is clinging to atmospheric particles and
migrating long distances.

Also, for the first time, low levels of deca have been found in
women's breast milk, although it was found in only six of 23
women tested at a Dallas clinic, according to the Texas study,
led by Arnold Schecter. O'Toole of the chemical industry group
says that fact is reassuring, because it shows most people are

But Bergman said it shows that "deca is more of a problem than
perhaps realized, and we do have a number of arguments now [to
ban it]. We know it is accumulating in birds of prey, and
seeing it in mother's milk is a bad observation."

Scientists at Sweden's Uppsala University report that deca
reduces the learning ability of rodents exposed as newborns,
similar to the PBDEs subject to the California ban.

One of the most intriguing new studies is one by the University
of Maryland that shows that when deca is consumed by fish, it
transforms itself into the types of PBDEs that are known to be

Bergman said the finding is important because it shows that
"deca is an environmentally unfriendly compound."

The European Union is expected to decide this year whether to
restrict deca, but there are no such efforts in California or
anywhere else in the U.S.

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times