Californians have twice the national average of toxic flame retardants in their blood

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Californians have been exposed to significantly higher levels of toxic flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, than people living in other parts of the country and the world.

Silent Spring Institute researchers found double the amount of penta-BDEs in the blood of California residents compared to the nationwide average. The scientists also found chemical ingredients of these commercial flame retardant mixtures in the dust of California homes at four to ten times the levels found elsewhere in the United States and 200 times higher than in Europe. The most contaminated California homes had levels higher than had ever been detected in household dust. Animal studies have linked PBDEs to thyroid abnormalities, endocrine disruption, cancer, and effects on brain development.

The study provides evidence that a flammability standard unique to California—one that requires furniture to be fire resistant to an open flame for 12 seconds—has led to an increased exposure to penta-BDEs, which manufacturers have added to polyeurethene furniture foam to meet the standard.

“If you live in California, you are at far greater risk of exposure to toxic penta-BDE flame retardants than if you live anywhere else in the country or the world,” says lead author Dr. Ami Zota, a scientist at the Silent Spring Institute. “These chemicals enter the body when people breathe or ingest contaminated house dust, which is why California residents have double the amount of the chemical in their bloodstreams compared to the national average. The health effects are particularly concerning for babies, children, and pregnant women.”

These findings may have even broader implications for the future, as state and federal governments are considering imposing new fire safety standards that would expand the use of flame retardants. The California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, for example, is now considering extending flammability standards to bed covers, a change that would encourage the use of potentially toxic flame retardants. In addition, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering adopting fire standards for furniture and bed covers.

The peer-reviewed study was published in the October 1, 2008, online edition of Environmental Science & Technology.