This is truly bad news: a new study (reported in Environmental Science and Technology, here) has found the highest levels of PBDEs—flame retardants that are added to furniture and fabrics—ever recorded in people.  A 34-year old man had 9,000 parts of PBDE per billion in his fat; and a 23 year old woman had over 4,000. 

In our study of Northwest moms, the highest  PBDElevel we found was 321 parts per billion.  Another PBDE study had a high level that was just over 1,000 parts per billion.  But 4,000 and 9,000 are pretty much unheard of.

And just by way of comparison—in Northern Europe and Japan, you might find highs in the low teens, or perhaps even lower.  (In case you’re curious, the reason our levels are so high is that the vast majority of the particularly dangerous penta-PBDEs—the ones that are most readily absorbed by people—have been used in North America, particularly in the furniture industry.)

Just as significantly, half of the people in the study were more contaminated by PBDEs than by PCBs—which are class of now-banned flame retardants that have been among the dominant persistent pollutants in human bodies since at least the 1970s.  PCB levels have been declining since then, albeit slowly, while PBDE levels have been rising for several decades.  Now, the lines have crossed—and in North America at least, PBDEs appear to be the dominant organohalogen pollutant in people’s bodies.

Now, I’m especially disappointed by this news because I had harbored a hope that PBDE contamination trends had started to level out a bit.   Of course, there haven’t been all that many studies in the US, but from what I’d been able to see, levels in 2003 or so seemed comparable to levels from the late 1990s.  But this study—which in addition to having the two very highly contaminated individuals, also had the highest median and mean levels of any study to date—makes me believe that we may not have topped out yet.

The problem, you see, is that there’s tons of PBDEs still in people’s homes—in furniture, carpet pads, and the like—that are going to serve as reservoirs for contamination for decades.  From ES&T:

Although two of the PBDE formulations that are known to result in human exposure, Penta and Octa, were banned in Europe last year and discontinued in the United States this year, the researchers interviewed for this article say that it will take years, perhaps even decades, for these actions to be reflected in decreasing human body burdens. This is partly because people tend to keep potential sources of the Penta and Octa formulations, such as furniture and mattresses, for extended periods.

Sobering news indeed—and, perhaps, reason to consider ramping up efforts to get PBDEs out of people’s homes.