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Top Chemistry Stories of 2003


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Flame Retardants Show Up in Fish and Breast Milk

Caution: Your sofa may be a health hazard, and not because you’re spending too much time vegetating in front of the TV. A class of chemicals used as flame retardants in polyurethane foam furniture padding, as well as in car dashboards and computer shells, have been gassing into the environment and turning up in everything from household dust to halibut. Recent studies reveal that polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are also accumulating in breast milk. In November a team of researchers led by Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas School of Public Health reported “extremely elevated” concentrations of PBDEs in a test group of 47 women, which “raises concern for potential toxicity to nursing infants.”

Some environmental scientists contend that PBDEs may prove to be the next PCBs—polychlorinated biphenyls—the toxic insulating compounds that were banned in the United States in 1977. They continue to persist in the environment. No one knows for certain how PBDEs get into the human body, but scientists suspect it may result from ingesting foam or plastic dust particles or from eating contaminated fish. “We know that PBDEs and PCBs are similar,” says Tom McDonald, staff toxicologist at the California Environmental Protection Agency. “And they work the same way. PCBs reduce the levels of the thyroid hormone thyroxine—and in humans, the thyroid is critical for development.”

Comprehensive lab studies of the toxic effects of PBDEs on humans have yet to be conducted, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency insists it’s too early to sound a general alarm. “At this point, we don’t feel that there are compelling health reasons for taking action,” says agency spokesman David Deegan. Nonetheless, in July the European Union inaugurated a ban on two PBDE compounds used in electronic products. California followed suit in August, instituting a ban that will go into effect in 2008. In the meantime, IKEA, the Swedish home furnishings company, as well as Apple, IBM, and Motorola, have already switched to foams and plastics treated with less-hazardous flame retardants.

Michael W. Robbins

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