East Bay Express (Oakland, Calif.)
February 16, 2005


Deca-BDE, a ubiquitous chemical that eluded the state [of
California's] 2003 ban on toxic flame retardants, could be our next
environmental nightmare.

By Andy Isaacson

Katrina Friedman of Oakland was alarmed to discover the milk she was
feeding her infant was contaminated with a chemical that had been
implicated in neurodevelopmental disorders in newborn animals.

The revelation came two years ago, following her participation in a
study that tested the breast milk of twenty Bay Area mothers for the
presence of consumer-product flame-retardants. "The really scary part
was that as a group we tested extremely high," Friedman recalls. "My
levels were about twenty to forty times higher than [in similar
studies done on mothers] in Sweden. That was disturbing."

The study, conducted by the Oakland-based Environmental Working Group,
found levels of PBDEs -- polybrominated diphenyl ethers -- in several
of the local women that were among the highest ever reported. In other
local studies, the flame retardants have popped up in blood and
household dust, and in fish, meat, and fowl from California
supermarkets. Last summer, scientists found the compounds in tern eggs
at Bay Area nesting sites. These chemicals are world travelers --
migrating as far as the Arctic -- and just like the dreaded DDT, they
accumulate in people's bodies over a lifetime.

As concerns mounted, Oakland Assemblywoman Wilma Chan introduced a
bill, which passed in 2003, calling for the ban of two members of the
PBDE family -- "penta" and "octa" -- by 2008. Equipped with
alternatives, their manufacturers agreed to beat that deadline and
halt production by January 1 of this year. Some consumer product
manufacturers already had stopped using PBDEs years earlier, once
their toxic potential became apparent.

Crisis averted, right? Not so fast, scientists say. The research
community is now sounding the alarm over a third type of PBDE known as
deca-BDE -- or simply "deca" -- which escaped state legislation and
the industry's voluntary phase-out due to the low levels detected in
humans and a dearth of evidence regarding its harm. For many
researchers and advocates, however, newer data about deca's behavior
in the environment suggest that excluding it from regulation may have
been a grave error.

As a class, the chemicals were intended to save lives, and they no
doubt have. California's strict fire safety laws mandate that a wide
variety of household products be fire resistant to ensure against a
dropped cigarette sparking a catastrophe, or families being poisoned
in their sleep by fumes from melting plastic. When a PBDE-containing
item hits a critical temperature, it releases bromine molecules, which
suppress the chemical reactions needed to propel oxygen-dependent

This precaution, it now appears, comes with a dangerous catch. In lab
rats, PBDEs behave like PCBs, a chemical relative banned in 1976 after
being linked to human birth defects, neurological damage, and thyroid
imbalances. The prevalence of the newer fire retardants in breast milk
is a worrisome indicator that a mother can pass the chemicals to a
nursing infant, and, far more critically, to an unborn fetus during
crucial periods of prenatal brain development. Studies on animals also
have shown that exposure early in life can alter reproductive
structures, lower sperm count, delay puberty, and damage the ovaries.

Researchers believe the chemicals leach into the environment during
their manufacture, use, and disposal. As the foam in sofa cushions
breaks down in landfills over time, for example, the released PBDEs
get carried by the wind and are deposited far and wide -- the
"grasshopper effect," as environmentalists call it. The toxins
ultimately work their way up the food chain to accumulate in humans
and predatory animals. "If you look at PBDE levels in people, they
vary quite substantially," explains Dr. Thomas McDonald, a national
expert on PBDEs and toxicologist with the California EPA's Office of
Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. "For some reason 5 percent of
the population has quite high levels, and if you compare those people
to [toxic levels] in animals, the margin of safety is pretty low."

Deca, the new pariah, accounts for 75 percent of the world PBDE market
-- 125 million pounds of the stuff is produced every year as an
additive to high-impact polystyrene plastics used in a wide variety of
products: hair dryers, toasters, curling irons, coffeemakers, TVs,
computer casings, printers, fax machines, smoke detectors, and light
fixtures. It is used in very large amounts -- up to 15 percent of the
plastic by weight. It also is added to backing in textiles for drapes,
furniture, and rugs, and to some polyurethane foams.

An industry group representing the compound's two manufacturers --
Great Lakes Chemical Corp. and Albemarle Corp. -- asserts that deca
remains a safe product. This claim was seemingly vindicated by a
European Union risk assessment, which concluded last May following a
ten-year study that "there were no identified risks to the environment
or to health from the use of Deca-BDE."

The experts now believe otherwise. "Deca is the gorilla in the
closet," says Dr. Kim Hooper, a leading PBDE researcher with the state
Department of Toxic Substances Control. "The myth was that it is
stable, doesn't degrade, doesn't disperse, stays in sediment or
products, is not metabolized, and is not taken up by biota. 'Like a
rock," the manufacturers said."

The reality emerging from the past two years of research is that deca
is nearly everything it was assumed not to be, scientists say. Because
of its widespread use, an enormous reservoir of the chemical
accumulates indoors, where people spend more than 80 percent of their
time. It has been found at significant levels in household dust, in
the film on the inside of windows, and in office air. Like penta,
octa, and PCBs, it now also appears to cause neurodevelopmental damage
in animals.

Unlike its banned siblings, deca seems to pass through the body
rapidly, which would account for the relatively low levels detected in
human tissues. But scientists believe, and recent data suggest, that
the larger compound -- named for the ten bromine atoms it contains --
may be broken down by sunlight into smaller molecules, including its
toxic, banned family members. Call it a Trojan horse: Scientists now
believe that some of the penta and octa detected in humans and the
environment is likely deca in disguise. This doesn't sit well with
McDonald, who dismisses the EU's risk assessment. "The new data that
deca loses its bromine in the environment and forms the lower-
brominated BDEs was not dealt with appropriately by the European Union
evaluation," he says.

Peter O'Toole, US director of the Bromine Science and Environment
Forum, which represents the PBDE manufacturers, maintains that the
breakdown of deca into penta and octa has not been concretely
demonstrated, "but is certainly something that we are investigating."

Those who have reviewed the existing data need little convincing. "The
final reality," Hooper says, speaking conservatively, "is that we have
more than a half-billion pounds of the stuff above ground in consumer
products in close human contact, and another half-billion below ground
in sediment. This billion pounds eventually breaks down; into what, we
don't know. Is this a good idea? Scientists don't think so. It's
become less of a scientific question -- now it's more like a question
of politics."

Politicians, unfortunately, have a poor track record in protecting
people from inadequately studied chemical additives. In the case of
fire retardants, opponents invariably dust off the classic cost-
benefit question: When does the harm a product might cause supersede
the lives it definitely saves?

It is perhaps too much to hope for that new chemicals be studied for
human and environmental toxicity before they are rushed pell-mell into
products for the kitchen or nursery. Absent any federal precautionary
philosophy, chemicals in this country are innocent until proven
guilty. By the time a convincing scientific case can be built against
them -- and the more profitable the chemical, the more evidence needed
to indict -- they are already in the midst of an often-lengthy life

"Under our old pollution mentality, we used to think of smokestacks as
responsible for our exposure to hazardous chemicals," says Sonya
Lunder, coauthor of Environmental Working Group studies on PBDEs in
dust and breast milk. "But we're finding chemicals in everyday
household products -- furniture, Teflon pans, cosmetics -- to be very

In the meantime, new mothers must face a harrowing personal cost-
benefit analysis. The expert consensus: Don't stop breastfeeding.
"There is something about breastfeeding and nutrients and the
different factors it provides that rescues toxic insults that may have
happened during gestation," researcher McDonald says. "We're after
optimal health, where mothers should breast-feed and where there are
low to insignificant levels of persistent pollutants in their bodies."

In the Dust, a report by the Environmental Working Group, offers
recommendations for limiting household PBDE exposure.

Copyright 2005 New Times, Inc.