Californians have world's highest levels of flame retardants.
By Marla Cone
Editor in Chief
Environmental Health News
Published October 1, 2008
Californians have the world’s highest levels of toxic flame retardants in their homes and in their bodies, according to new scientific findings published Wednesday.
Household dust tested in Richmond and Bolinas had four to ten times more brominated flame retardants than other American homes and 200 times more than European homes. Statewide, Californians had twice as much in their blood than other U.S. residents. The lower the income, the more contaminated the homes and the people who inhabit them.
The main reason for California’s high exposure may be the state’s flammability standard for furniture, which is the most stringent in the world. To comply, many manufacturers added chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) to polyurethane foam cushions for couches and chairs.
“It’s sobering to realize that this one well-intended regulation in California has resulted in the global contamination of a persistent toxic pollutant,” said Ami Zota, a scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, a Massachusetts-based institution, who led the study. “These chemicals have been detected in nearly every species across the globe.”
In animal studies, PBDEs alter development of the brain and reproductive system and disrupt thyroid hormones. Spreading from pole to pole via oceans, air and consumer products, they have been building up in the bodies of people and wildlife around the world, particularly in the United States.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, is the first regional examination of people’s exposure to the chemicals.
Kim Hooper, a scientist at the California Environmental Protection Agency's laboratory in Berkeley who studies the flame retardants, said the new results add to other evidence that Californians are highly exposed. Previous tests of the breast milk of California women found high levels. Also, tests on California children, wildlife and pets have shown high concentrations.
Combined, all the data “indicate that California has higher exposure than the rest of the nation,” Hooper said. “We’ve been concerned for five years about this and we’re glad that others are pointing it out, too. We need more action in this area.”
Many toxicologists and other environmental scientists have considered the rapid accumulation of PBDEs in human breast milk and wildlife to be one of the most worrisome environmental health problems.
In the new study, the scientists tested dust in 49 homes in the two Bay Area communities and compared the results with previous tests in the rest of North America and in Europe.
The scientists also used federal data to compare blood concentrations of 276 Californians in four counties to people elsewhere. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which compiled the blood data, will not release the names of the counties.
Dust from the Richmond houses had the highest levels, with concentrations three times higher than the Bolinas houses, according to the study.
The Richmond dust contained six times more PBDEs than dust from Boston and Washington, D.C., and 15 times more than Cape Cod, Mass. The Bolinas dust had twice as much as Boston and Washington, D.C. and five times more than Cape Cod.
Scientists suspect that the levels found in Richmond and Bolinas are mirrored throughout California.
“The PBDE levels in both of these communities were significantly elevated. Both of them were high,” Zota said. “It’s interesting that even when you account for race, age, income, education, gender and country of origin, the difference between California and the rest of the country strongly persists.”
Low-income people had higher PBDE levels in their homes and blood, perhaps because their furniture is older and more worn, according to the team of scientists from the Silent Spring Institute, UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science and the Harvard School of Public Health.
The study focused on Richmond as part of a larger project that is examining the cumulative impacts of an array of pollutants in a low-income, ethnically diverse community. Richmond is adjacent to two oil refineries, as well as other industrial plants and major freeways. Bolinas was chosen to compare exposures in an affluent, mainly Caucasian community that is not in an industrial area.
People might be inhaling the compounds or absorbing them through their skin when foam cushions are torn or crumbling. Previous research has correlated the amount of PBDEs in people’s furniture to the amounts in their house dust.
The most ubiquitous flame retardant found in the blood and dust—a compound called penta—already has been banned under California law.
Robert Luedeka, director of the Polyurethane Foam Assn., a trade group for foam manufacturers, said U.S. manufacturers stopped adding penta to foam by the end of 2004.
However, many households still have furniture manufactured before then, so the chemical remains in their homes. It also remains in the environment and in human bodies for years because it is slow to break down.
Linda Birnbaum, director of experimental toxicology at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said she could not comment Wednesday on the new data. “But,” she said, “we think higher levels in California may be a reflection of the higher requirements for flame safety which has led to greater use of fire retardants in consumer products.”
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering adopting California’s furniture flammability standard nationally. In addition, the state legislature is debating extending the standard to more products, including pillows and bed coverings.
Luedeka said before 2005, much of the furniture sold nationwide contained penta.
In the 1980s, little penta was used outside of California, Luedeka said. But its use in furniture increased in the 1990s because manufacturers wanted all products to comply with California’s flammability standard for economic and liability reasons, he said. By 2003, after researchers found that it was accumulating in human breast milk, its use slowed, and then stopped at the end of 2004 because of bans in California and Europe.
“At its peak, penta was probably used in about one-third of all furniture sold outside California,” Luedeka said.
Manufacturers now use other flame retardants, including some brominated ones, in furniture foam.
Products that contain the chemicals are slower to burn in case of fire, but some scientists say more data are needed about the hazards of the compounds that replaced penta.
Hooper said state scientists are now testing Californians’ blood and breast milk for the new flame retardants but data is not yet available.
Compounding the concern, another PBDE, called deca, is still used in large volumes and also has been found in human bodies and house dust. It is added to plastic in some electronics equipment, including computers and TV sets.
People have few ways to protect themselves from flame retardants. “We can’t throw all our furniture away,” Hooper said.
“All of this points to the need for green chemistry, where you have alternatives, and points to the need to do more studies on chemicals of emerging concern,” he said. “We need to be wise about our choice of alternatives.”
Earlier this week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that requires state officials to adopt new rules by 2010 that identify chemicals of concern and reduce people’s exposure.