Wednesday, September 29, 2004
Study shows toxin in breast milk
100 percent discovery rate in Northwest samples is 'troubling'
By CAROL SMITH
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
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
<*> To subscribe to this group, send an email to: