Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Breast Milk Found to Be Awash in Chemicals

Breast Milk Awash In Chemicals
By Andre Picard
The Globe and Mail

A new study conducted in British Columbia and the U.S. Northwest has found chemical flame retardants in the breast milk of every woman tested. Not only were the chemicals, polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, omnipresent, but they were among the highest levels recorded in humans.

"Contamination with PBDEs is ubiquitous," said Clark Williams-Derry, research director for Northwest Environment Watch (NEW), the Seattle-based group that conducted the research.

"The levels we found were 20 to 40 times higher than what you find in Europe and Asia," said Mr. Williams-Derry, who heads up NEW, which describes itself an independent, not-for-profit research and communication centre.

Earlier this year, Health Canada released a survey that found that women in Canada had levels about five to 10 times higher than those in other advanced industrial countries, such as Japan, Sweden and Germany. The survey indicated that Canadian women have the second-highest levels in the world, after the United States.

PBDEs are chemicals widely used as flame retardants in furniture foams, industrial textiles, and consumer electronics. It is not known exactly how PBDEs migrate from household products into human tissue. They have been found in household dust and sewage sludge, in many fatty foods such as meat and fish, and in wildlife.

Mr. Williams-Derry said that while there is little research on human health and PBDEs, animal experiments have linked the chemicals to learning difficulties, memory impairment, and changes in thyroid hormone levels.

The similarity of these effects to those of childhood attention-deficit disorders, and the rising tide of adult thyroid problems, have led to suggestions that PBDEs play a role in these ailments.

"You can't avoid exposure to flame retardants any more, even if you have the cleanest lifestyle. That calls for some public safeguards, some regulatory action," he said.

Alexis Doctor, a Vancouver woman whose breast milk was tested as part of the research, said that she was shocked to learn of the contamination, and that her 14-month-old son, Ethan, could be ingesting chemicals.

"I don't have a safe feeling any more," she said. "I work in an office, not a chemical factory, so I can't believe that all this stuff is in my body."

Ms. Doctor was one of 40 women in British Columbia and the states of Montana, Oregon, and Washington whose breast milk was tested as part of the research. Her milk contained 23 parts per billion of PBDEs, well below the median level of 50 ppb, but still not negligible. The highest level recorded in British Columbia was 381 ppb.

The researchers stressed that women should continue to breastfeed because the benefits of doing so almost certainly outweigh the risks. They tested breast milk only because it is a simple means of determining environmental exposure to chemicals.

Paul Muldoon, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said that while the sample was small and tests were done only on the Pacific Coast, there is every reason to believe this level of contamination exists across North America. "People in Eastern Canada should be just as alarmed about these findings as people in Western Canada and people in Central Canada," he said.

Mr. Muldoon said while it is unclear what safe levels of PBDEs might be for humans, regulators should not be complacent. "We need to take a precautionary approach, and that requires some direct intervention."

Mr. Muldoon said that, legally, PBDEs are a tough substance to regulate. Environmental laws tend to target emissions, while in this instance the potentially dangerous chemicals are discharged from common household products.

Mr. Williams-Derry said that there should be a rapid phase-out of the use of PBDEs in manufacturing, and a push to find alternatives. He noted that countries like Sweden have banned PBDEs without difficulty. "This is not an insurmountable problem."

Until PBDEs are banned, or phased out, Mr. Williams-Derry said consumers should try to minimize their exposure by buying furniture and carpeting made with natural fibres, or sold at companies such as IKEA, which has stopped using the chemicals.

Health Canada and Environment Canada recommended earlier this year that some forms of PBDEs be declared toxic and eliminated from use.

International comparisons done by Health Canada scientists show that breast milk has about 100 times more PBDEs today than 30 years ago.

Over the past three decades, increasing amounts of PBDEs have been added to consumer products such as televisions, computers, and to the polyurethane foam used in furniture. The good news, according to health and environmental experts, is that the problem can be fairly easily reversed. After Sweden banned PBDEs, contamination levels in breast milk declined sharply.

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