PBDE flame retardants and the environment

Polybrominated Diphenylethers (PBDEs) have been in use for decades now for their fire retardant properties. They are synthetic chemicals that do not occur naturally and take a long time to break down.  You’ll find PBDE chemicals in computer casings, carpet foam, cushions, chairs, couches, toys, food packaging, insulation, appliances, cart trim, telephones and cable insulation – the list goes on..

There are three types of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers – Penta, Octa and Deca. Whichever it is, it’s not good for you or the environment and to make things even more challenging, you won’t find their presence flagged on a product.

PBDE’s, like formaldehyde, offgases over time and this is one of the ways it enters into the environment and food chain. It’s found in the air, soil and water – both fresh and saline.

These chemicals are being detected building up in animal and plant tissues everywhere – even in whales living in remote places. In fact, Norwegian killer whales are said to be the most toxic mammals in the Arctic thanks to PBDE’s.

The chemicals are also found in human breast milk. General levels appear to be highest in the USA and testing of breast milk of Australian women a couple of years ago showed higher levels than those observed in Europe and Japan but lower than those observed in North America and some parts of Canada.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that animal tests show PBDEs to be liver and neurodevelopmental toxins and disrupt thyroid function. Other studies have shown PBDE chemicals to also affect reproduction and reduce immune system performance.

While production of pentaBDE and octaBDE ceased in the USA in 2004, decaBDE is not banned there as it’s said it doesn’t easily accumulate in humans. The problem is decaBDE can degrade to octaBDEs and pentaBDEs. Europe is phasing out the use of PBDE’s altogether in favor of non-brominated additives.

How to avoid PBDE chemicals?

This is a tough one. It’s hard to escape Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers – they are just everywhere and will be for generations to come. Even the home environment isn’t safe as levels of PBDE’s can be up to 50 times higher in the air inside a building than outside. We breathe the stuff in. It’s another price we are paying for our labor saving devices and whizz-bang gadgets.

Some suggestions for minimizing PBDE exposure that I’ve found around the web:

– Keep dust levels down in your home.
– Ventilate your home while cleaning
– Remove your shoes went entering your home
– Replace cushions on older furniture
– Don’t burn plastics
– Drain fat from meat and fish as this is where PBDE’s concentrate
– Washing hands after cooking, cleaning and outdoor activity
– If pulling up old carpets, wear a mask.

As mentioned, the presence of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers likely won’t be flagged on a product. It’s more likely it will be mentioned if the product *doesn’t* contain them, so you’ll probably need contact companies to ask about their use of PBDE’s. 

Some companies have seen the writing on the wall and discontinued their use of all PBDE’s, others will wait until they are forced to. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, if enough people flag these issues with companies, they may do something about it before government gets around to it.