SEATTLE — Washington in 2007 was the first to ban some flame retardants commonly used in furniture or televisions with known adverse effects to babies’ developing brains. Then came their replacements: more toxic chemicals.
Those chemicals are building up in Puget Sound-area moms’ breast milk, according to a study published this week in the journal Environmental Pollution.
The research found the levels of banned PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, in breast milk have declined some 70% over the past two decades. But bromophenols, a largely unregulated flame retardant used to replace PBDEs, were present in 88% of the breast milk samples tested. Younger moms had higher levels of exposure.
Researchers from Toxic-Free Future, Emory University, the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Research Institute recruited 50 pregnant or breastfeeding women from Tacoma to Everett and collected breast milk samples from March to October 2019.
These brominated flame retardants, first manufactured by Velsicol before the 1970s, are today ubiquitous. The chemicals have been found in dust in people’s homes, in the sediment of rivers, shellfish off the coast of Edmonds, Commencement and Elliott bays and the blubber of sperm whales that feed deep in the Atlantic Ocean.
Researchers in 2018 found that the presence of bromophenols in placentas was on par with that of the banned flame retardants. Another study by the same author revealed that bromophenols affected the presence of thyroid hormones that are critical to brain development in children.
Washington this year expanded restrictions on toxic flame retardant chemicals, but they will likely persist in people’s homes and bodies after they are phased out in 2025.
Erika Schreder, the lead author of the breast milk study, says the research highlights the need to develop legislation to prevent future use of toxic chemicals in lieu of banned chemicals.
“What we found really points to the need for us to make sure that when we’re replacing harmful chemicals we’re choosing chemicals or materials that are known to be safer,” said Schreder, science director at Seattle-based Toxic-Free Future, a group that has advocated for new regulation.
A total of 25 brominated flame retardants were detected in breast milk samples, including eight bromophenols. It was the first look at the chemicals that in many cases replaced PBDEs.
“What we’re seeing in these results is that when we phase out chemicals like PBDEs, we do see a benefit for moms and babies,” Schreder said.
“I think it’s really disturbing to find that despite the fact that we’ve taken action on one set of chemicals that build up in breast milk and can harm babies,” Schreder continued, “we’re now seeing a new class of chemicals that are present in breast milk and can harm children’s health.”
Toxic-Free Future, in studies published in 2017 and 2019, found most companies had replaced PBDEs, a type of brominated flame retardant, with more of the same class of chemicals. The chemicals, often found in television casings, have been detected in dust and air in homes. They can travel through wastewater, and pollute waterways, the food supply and humans.
Prior to banning PBDEs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowed companies to sell products containing flame retardants without thoroughly assessing the health risks. The Chicago Tribune reported in 2012 that the EPA promoted one chemical mixture as a safe, eco-friendly flame retardant “despite grave concerns from its own scientists about potential hazards to humans and wildlife.”
The study builds on existing research that found other toxic chemicals, like PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” accumulate in breast milk.
Washington this May added all organohalogen flame retardants in plastic enclosures of all indoor electric and electronic products to the list of restricted chemicals in the state. Restrictions for some uses of organohalogen flame retardants will be phased in starting in 2025.
If the chemical is restricted, it means the state was able to identify a safer alternative that could be used. If the restricted chemical has been intentionally added to products covered by the rule, they cannot be manufactured, sold or distributed in Washington after the effective date.
The new rules are the culmination of over four years of work through the “Safer Products for Washington” program that started in 2019, when the Legislature passed a law giving authority to the state Department of Ecology to identify and regulate toxic chemicals found in common consumer products.