Just about wherever scientists look these days, they find a commercial flame retardant chemical known as PBDE. The compounds are disturbingly similar to PCBs and dioxins, two compounds known to cause health effects ranging from learning deficits to sexual hormone disruption to cancer. PBDEs themselves have been linked to learning and memory deficits in laboratory animals, even after a single dose. The LA Times has the latest, including this:

The flame retardants have been detected in virtually every person and animal tested, even newborns and fetuses, around the world, including Australia, Arctic Canada and Svalbard, Norway, near the North Pole. Amounts in people and wildlife are doubling in North America every four to six years, a pace unmatched for any contaminant in at least 50 years.

That’s certainly borne out by our experience: we found PBDEs in each of the 9 breastmilk samples we tested from Puget Sound-area women. (We’ll have more complete results for elsewhere in the Northwest, and for dioxins and PCBs as well as PBDEs, later this year.)

Perhaps more disturbingly, according to Swedish researcher Ake Bergman, one of the pioneers of PBDE detection, “There is more or less a continuous exposure, and there is absolutely no way to really control it. You have almost a 24-hour exposure, except for the time you are outside.”

The good news is that, provided that US PBDE manufacturers follow through with their commitments, they’ll stop manufacturing the two most troublesome forms of the compounds by the end of this year. The bad news is that there are still millions of pounds of the substances in people’s homes throughout North America, and some forms of PBDE (known as “deca-PBDE” because it contains 10 bromine atoms) are still being used. The bromine industry correctly points out that even though deca is more widely used than other forms of PBDE, it is not as prevalent in tests of wildlife and people. But what they don’t mention is that it appears that deca-PBDE also breaks down into other forms of PBDE that accumulate more readily in people, and that may be more toxic than deca itself.