Flame retardant levels fall in US women

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  • Published: Oct 7, 2013
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: Base Peak / Infrared Spectroscopy / Chemometrics & Informatics / Proteomics / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / Raman / MRI Spectroscopy / NMR Knowledge Base / X-ray Spectrometry / Atomic

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No matter how vigorously we scientists defend science, there have been occasions when we got it wrong and a number of these have involved chlorinated and brominated chemicals. More specifically, the production of many such chemicals on an industrial scale for consumer products that have later been shown to persist in the environment with harmful effects.

Think of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as refrigerants and coolants which rose into the atmosphere when released to attack the ozone layer. Another example are the flame retardants that contain bromine which were used freely to protect items like soft furnishings and the plastic housings for electronic goods. These polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are not chemically bound to the products so find it relatively easy to escape. The have been found in air, soil, sediments and dust, with household dust providing the main exposure route to humans.

And herein lies the problem. Although the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has said that "nothing definite is known about the health effects of PBDEs in people," there remain strong suspicions that they might introduce thyroid effects and neurobehavioral alterations in infants. The primary route for newborns is mothers’ milk in which levels had been rising sharply.

Having got it wrong, the scientists and legislators began to put it right by developing new flame retardants to replace the old ones which are being phased out. In North America, PBDE exposures were an order of magnitude higher than in Europe and Asia with Californian residents having the greatest exposures, due to the state’s high flammability standard. And it was California that introduced the first state ban on two highly used PBDEs in 2004.

That ban is taking effect. A new study reported in Environmental Science and Technology has shown that the levels of PBDEs in the serum of pregnant women have fallen 65% over 5 years. This is a faster drop than the scientists expected, given the lifetimes of these chemical in the environment. "That’s the good news," said lead scientist Ami Zota. "At the same time, PBDEs persist in the environment for years." Along with other studies, all the evidence is for a rapid fall in PBDEs in humans, followed by a levelling off. Thereafter, they will be eliminated more slowly.

When we make mistakes, it's important not only that we put it right, but that the general public gets to hear about it. In this case, good publicity from the journal and the scientists involved in the study ensured that the news got out. Of course, it would be better to cut out mistakes like these in the first place but is it possible to do that?

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