The company I work for eliminated Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (or PBDEs) from the electronic products we sell because of an environmental law passed in Europe banning these substances. The company supported this environmental legislation wholeheartedly (we werenít using PBDEs in any of our products), and I thought that would be the end of the PBDE story for me. It was more of the beginning.
PBDEs are toxic.
PBDEs affect most of us (and our cats) in more significant ways than I could have imagined at the time. Health effects from PBDE exposure are undergoing significant study, and there is a mounting body of evidence against PBDEs showing that they can cause a wide range of adverse effects like liver toxicity, endocrine disruption, and birth and developmental defects. One study linked increased exposure to PBDEs and hyperthyroidism in cats, another study showed that PBDEs can alter thyroid hormone levels in humans, and yet other research suggests firefighters are at increased risk of harm.
PBDEs are nearly everywhere.
PBDEs are widely used as flame retardant materials and can be found in many common household items like couches, carpet padding, electronic devices, cushions and mattresses. A study conducted by the Friends of the Earth found halogenated flame retardants in two-thirds of household furniture they tested.
PDBEs are in nearly everyone.
Another recent study, this one published by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found traces of PBDEs in 98.8 percent of people participating in the study. Researchers are also finding babies being born with detectable levels of PBDEs in their blood and elevated concentrations of PBDEs in breast milk.
Fortunately most PBDEs have been banned in furniture sold in Europe since 2004 and electronic devices since 2006. North America has voluntarily phased out the use of most PBDEs in furniture as well, and more laws are also being passed banning the use of PBDEs.
Unfortunately there are no worldwide bans of halogenated flame retardants or PBDEs so furniture and electronics purchased in some countries may still contain these flame retardants. To make matters worse, many of the products containing PBDEs are typically used for many years and even decades so PBDEs arenít going away anytime soon.
Read more next week in Part 2 of this story, which will share ideas we all can use to minimize our risk of PBDE exposure.