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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Study shows toxin in breast milk
100 percent discovery rate in Northwest samples is 'troubling'


A toxin found in widely used flame retardants has turned up in 100 percent 
of nursing mothers tested in Washington and other Northwest states.

The study, released yesterday by Seattle-based Northwest Environment Watch, 
found PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in all 40 breast-milk samples 
taken from women in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Montana. PBDEs 
are found in foam furniture padding and other textiles, as well as the hard 
plastics used to house electronic equipment, including computers.

"It's troubling that we found it in every sample we tested," said Clark 
Williams- Derry, research director for Northwest Environment Watch, a 
non-profit environmental watchdog group. The findings match other studies 
that show similar levels in women's breast milk nationwide.

Still, it was a shock for Maria Dolan, 35, who participated in the study 
while nursing her daughter, who was born last year.

"I think I lead a healthy life, and I was curious what a healthy person's 
level of toxicity would be," she said of volunteering to participate in the 
study. She was surprised to learn how high her levels were.

"I'm someone who pays attention to what I eat, hikes, spends a lot of time 
outside and filters my water," she said. "What my case illustrates is 
(exposure to PBDEs) is not something you can avoid anymore. They are so 

Researchers have several theories about how PBDEs enter the body. They are 
found in food, especially animal fats. But they may also be inhaled in 
household dust, said Williams-Derry.

The study found levels ranging from 6 to 321 parts per billion, with half 
the samples measuring above 50 ppb and half below. Although these levels 
are about the same as those found in other studies in North America, they 
are 20 to 40 times higher than levels found in Sweden and Japan, 
Williams-Derry said. Sweden and Japan have already taken steps to phase 
out or ban PBDEs.

"The levels (in the United States) are high and rising rapidly," he said. 
"They have increased approximately 15-fold over the last two decades."

Researchers are not sure what the health effects of exposure to the 
chemicals might be. Animal studies suggest they may impair learning and 
memory, as well as affect fertility, he said.

Williams-Derry and others emphasized, however, that the health benefits of 
breastfeeding for both infants and mothers still outweighed potential risks 
from exposure to PBDEs in breast milk. "This does not mean women should 
stop breastfeeding," he said. Environmental activists said the findings 
supported the need to reduce or ban use of PBDEs in consumer products.

"We know from experience in Europe and other places that when (these 
chemicals) are banned, the levels, particularly in breast milk, decline," 
said Laurie Valeriano, policy director for the non-profit Washington Toxics 
Coalition, which is working with government and industry groups to phase 
out the chemical.

In April, Gov. Gary Locke signed an executive order directing the state 
Department of Ecology in conjunction with the Department of Health to 
develop a program to phase out persistent toxic chemicals, including all 
forms of PBDEs. A draft proposal is expected to be available for public 
comment by mid-October.

Public hearings will be held in Seattle from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 19 at the 
Best Western Executive Inn, 200 Taylor Ave., and also in Spokane from 
7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 26 at 515 W. Sprague Ave.

P-I reporter Carol Smith can be reached at 206-448-8070 

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