I've got some scary news for California's families today. Two new studies show remarkably high levels of PBDE flame retardants in the bodies of California children. PBDE body burden levels in two separate populations of California children were 10 to 1,000 times higher than European children, 2 to 10 times higher than other U.S. children and adults, and approached levels measured in occupationally-exposed adults.
The second study, published in the journal Environmental Research measured and compared body burden levels of PBDEs and other POPs (for example, PCBs and DDE) in 600 girls aged 6 to 8 years old from California and Ohio. Researchers for this study found significantly higher levels of PBDE flame retardants in girls from California compared to Ohio. They also observed a difference in exposure by race and ethnicity. Black girls had significantly higher levels of PBDEs compared to white girls, and Hispanics had intermediate values.
OK, let's back up. What are PBDEs and other POPs you ask? PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are chemical flame retardants that have been added to many consumer products, such as mattresses, furniture and electronics, since the 1970s. PBDEs are persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, meaning that do not readily break down in the environment. These types of chemicals continue to "bioaccumulate" or build up in the food chain. So in addition to the products mentioned above, they are also found in many meat and dairy products. And even in household dust.
PBDEs can disrupt the thyroid system and have been linked to neurodevelopmental problems in children following prenatal exposure.
Researchers in both studies found that diet, indoor environment and social factors influenced children’s body burden levels of PBDEs. Eating poultry and pork contributed to elevated body burdens for nearly all types of flame retardants. The presence of new mattresses or furniture in the home was also associated with higher levels. And lower socioeconomic status – as measured by the educational level of the mother – was associated with higher PBDE levels in the child.
These two studies confirm that California's children have higher body burdens of PBDEs than children in other parts of the world – including Europe and Mexico – and most adults who do not work with the chemicals. The results support previous studies that found elevated PBDE exposures in California adults compared to the rest of the country and the world.
Why are PBDE levels so high for Californians? The high levels are likely due to the unique furniture flammability standard in the state.