Toxic fire retardants found in U.S. women's breast milk, but breastfeeding still best for baby and mom

Los Angeles, September 23, 2003       Back to press release list

Washington Toxics Coalition

Toxic Fire Retardants Found in U.S. Women's Breast Milk
Study Urges Chemical Ban, But Says Breastfeeding Still Best for Baby and Mom In the first nationwide tests for chemical fire retardants in the breast milk of American mothers, Environmental Working Group (EWG) found unexpectedly high levels of these little-known thyroid toxins in every woman tested. Milk from several of the mothers in EWG's study had among the highest levels of these chemicals yet detected worldwide.

Like their long-banned chemical relatives PCBs, brominated fire retardants -- used in hundreds of products including computers, TVs, cars, and furniture -- persist in the environment for decades and build up in people's bodies over a lifetime. While dozens of earlier studies have linked chemical fire retardants to adverse health effects, EWG has conducted the first nationwide test for the presence of the chemicals in people.

For the study, 20 first-time mothers from 17 cities in 14 states donated samples of breast milk that were analyzed by an accredited laboratory. The average level of brominated fire retardants in the milk samples was 75 times higher than the average for Swedish women and was at a level associated with toxic effects shown in several studies using laboratory animals.

"Breastfeeding remains the single most important choice mothers can make for the health of their babies," said EWG Analyst Sonya Lunder, co-author of Mothers' Milk, available at "But finding these chemicals in breast milk shows the shocking extent to which industrial toxins are invading our bodies. Brominated fire retardants don't belong in breast milk, they don't belong in babies, and they should be phased out as soon as possible."

Scientists know fire retardants are harmful, but they don't know how they get from couches and computers into our bodies. Like most industrial chemicals, under federal law they were allowed on the market with inadequate safety testing.

Europe has banned some fire retardants starting next year and experts say they are not necessary for safety, but they remain unregulated in the United States. California recently passed a law banning some fire retardants, but it does not take effect until 2008.

Brandie Smith, toxics campaigner at the Washington Toxics Coalition, said "These striking findings make the point that chemicals that last in the environment and build up in breast milk should never be released. The Department of Ecology should kick-start its program to phase out persistent toxic chemicals, and the legislature should fully fund the program."

"I do everything I can to minimize my exposures to toxic chemicals, for my health and for my daughter's health, and I still have toxic flame retardants in my breast milk," said new mother and study participant Erika Schreder. "Breast milk should be pure food for babies, and I want our government to do what it takes to get toxics out of breast milk."

EWG President Ken Cook said the findings were one more link in a long chain of evidence that the current system of regulating toxic chemicals is not protecting Americans. "How is it," he asked, "that chemical companies can put new products on store shelves that have undergone such little scrutiny? Why is the system set up so that consumers have to prove harm before the government can get more information?"

EWG urges the U.S. EPA to follow the lead of Europe, which has banned the two most widely used brominated flame retardants beginning next year, and a third by 2006. In the interim, products containing brominated fire retardants should be labeled so that consumers can choose to avoid them. Some computer makers and other manufacturers have already stopped using fire retardants, achieving the same level of fire safety through smarter product design, and some retailers, notably furniture giant IKEA, have told their suppliers they won't sell products with chemical fire retardants.

Legislation was introduced in Washington state in 2003 to phase out the use of brominated flame retardants in computers and televisions by 2007. It would also require these products to be labeled or packaged with information about the hazardous materials they contain. "We need to phase out brominated flame retardants and get manufacturers to re-think their product designs," said Suellen Mele, electronics campaign coordinator for Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation.

The report emphasizes that mothers should continue breastfeeding, which doctors say provides innumerable benefits to mothers and babies. But women who are pregnant or breastfeeding can reduce their exposure to fire retardants by avoiding contact with foam padding, and buying products with natural fibers that are naturally fire resistant.

    Environmental Working Group
    Lauren Sucher or Bill Walker

    Washington Toxics Coalition
    Brandie Smith
    206-632-1545 ext.18

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