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Flame retardant chemical detected in food

Reiner Kraft

A flame retardant chemical that’s used in insulation and electrical equipment is showing up in food. It's called hexabromocyclododecane or HBCD. 

Here's what the Environmental Protection Agency says about the chemical:

HBCD is found world-wide in the environment and wildlife. It is also found in human breast milk, adipose tissue, and blood. It bioaccumulates in living organisms and biomagnifies in the food chain. It is persistent in the environment and is transported long distances. HBCD is highly toxic to aquatic organisms. It also presents human health concerns based on animal test results indicating potential reproductive, developmental and neurological effects.

Flame retardant chemicals are used in hundreds of consumer products. Certain kinds of these chemicals leach out of our couches, our TVs, our carpet padding and many other things in our homes. They've been found in household dust and in food, and they're getting into our bodies.

Linda Birnbaum is the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Toxicology Program.

She’s a senior author of a study out today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives and I spoke with her for today's Environment Report.  For the study, the team purchased 36 samples of foods common in American diets from Dallas, Texas supermarkets, including peanut butter, poultry, fish and beef.  HBCD was detected in 15 of the samples.

"We primarily found it in fatty foods of animal origin, so fatty animal products. This is a chemical that loves to be in the fat, and that’s where we’re finding it."

Williams: "Now, were the levels you found high enough to be of concern?"

Birnbaum: "The levels are very, very low. I would call this micro-contamination. In our 2010 study where we looked at the total presence of this chemical, at that point we estimated that the daily intake was about 1,000 fold lower than what is believed to be a safe dose."

HBCD is showing up in people's bodies. The study states that food "may be a substantial contributor to the elevated ?-HBCD levels observed in humans."

Birnbaum: "There have been several studies done, a few studies in the U.S., not large studies of the entire population, but a few studies in the U.S. and some studies in Canada and Europe and Asia, which have found low levels of this compound in either human blood or breast milk."

But she says it's not clear whether those levels pose a health hazard to people.

Birnbaum: "We know very little, really, about the toxicity of HBCD. There have been some animal studies which suggest it could affect neurodevelopment and that it’s an endocrine disruptor. But we have really no data to speak of in humans yet, and again, the animal data is very limited."

Williams: "And HBCD is certainly not the first flame retardant chemical that has shown up in food or people’s bodies..."

Birnbaum: "No, it’s not. These are chemicals that are produced in high volume and are used in many products we all come into contact with."

She says the flame retardants that have received the most study are PBDEs, polybrominated diphenyl ethers. (You can learn more about PBDEs in a five-part series we produced in 2010: Is Fire Safety Putting Us at Risk?)  These are types of flame retardants that have been widely used in furniture.  Several types have been phased out or will be in coming years... but they are persistent in the environment.

"And it’s only within the past couple years that people have begun to look to see whether the effects that we see in experimental animals and in wildlife are also occurring in humans. And we’re finding that the animal data is in good agreement with what we’re beginning to see, now that we’re looking, in the human population."

Birnbaum says the human and animal studies are suggestings links between PBDEs and problems with reproduction, neurodevelopmental effects, and endocrine disruption.

Williams: "At this point, do we know enough about HBCD’s potential toxicity to try to reduce our exposure?"

Birnbaum: "I think we really don’t know where our exposure is coming from for HBCD. The presence of it in our food suggests that that would be one route of exposure. There is only very limited information for us to get an idea of how much might be in dust to try to understand is it dust or food which is going to be our major source of exposure to HBCD. The detection of these chemicals in our food, this is really just a pilot study, it says it’s been detected. The levels are actually a little bit lower than have been reported in some European foods. But it would really be nice to have a larger statistically-based sampling of the American food supply."


The Chicago Tribune recently published an investigation of the tobacco and chemical industries called "Playing with Fire." Here's an excerpt:

The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world. The toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home, packed into couches, chairs and many other products. Two powerful industries — Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers — waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of these chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.



Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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