Here’s some news to brighten your day: a new study suggests that recent bans of toxic flame retardants have made our bodies cleaner.
Researchers in California were interested in the trends in “body burdens” for two classes of flame retardants known as PCBs and PBDEs. Both are “persistent, bioaccumulative toxics”—that is, they collect in animal tissues, break down slowly, and can have harmful effects on living things. PCBs were banned back in the 1970s, but they still linger in the environment and concentrate in body fat. PBDEs were widely used in furniture foams until the mid-2000s but were phased out of the market after a tidal wave of tests—including a series of tests initiated and coordinated by Sightline Institute—demonstrated that the chemicals were showing up at higher and higher levels in human bodies.
The California researchers compared the PCB and PBDE levels against samples taken just a few years previously—and found evidence of a rapid decline in body concentrations of the compounds:
To assess the efficacy of…bans in reducing PBDE levels, we recruited 67 California first time mothers (sampled during 2009-2012)…. Using the same sample extraction procedures and analytical instrumentation method…we compared PBDE as well as PCB levels in these breast milk samples to those from our previous study (…sampled during 2003-2005) and found that the sum of PBDEs over the ∼7 year course declined by 39%…and that the sum of PCBs declined by 36%. This supports our earlier finding of a PBDE decline (39%) in blood.
Sightline’s 2004 study relied on the excellent analytical work of the the same lab that published these new findings. Our study gave some critical ammunition to tireless anti-toxics advocates who ultimately convinced the Washington legislature to pass one of the most comprehensive PBDE bans in the world. Several other states, including Maine and California, passed their own bans; and the nation’s only manufacturer of the most troublesome forms of PBDEs voluntarily withdrew them from the market.
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And now there’s some clear evidence that these bans and phaseouts really are making our bodies cleaner. Which is great news, since studies on laboratory animals demonstrated that neonatal exposure to PBDEs impaired memory and learning, altered behavior, delayed sexual development, and disturbed thyroid hormones. (Yuck!)
The bad news is that PBDEs aren’t gone yet. Developing infants are still exposed to the compounds, and we’d be much better off if they’d never been put into furniture in the first place.
But progress is progress, and this news is genuine cause for celebration.