A new study shows that Californians have twice the level of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in their bloodstreams than people living in other states.
PBDEs are often used in furniture sold in California in order to comply with the state's strict fire safety standards. Studies on animals have suggested that PBDE's can cause cancer, thyroid and endocrine problems, and could affect brain development.
The study was published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology. It was conducted by the Massachusetts-based Silent Spring Institute in collaboration with the University of California Berkeley, Brown University, and the group Communities for a Better Environment.
"If you live in California you are at far greater risk of exposure to penta-BDE flame retardants than if you live anywhere else in the country or the world," said lead author Dr. Ami Zota, a scientist at Silent Spring Institute, in a statement. "The health effects are of particular concern for babies, children, and pregnant women."
High levels of these chemicals are used in order to help furniture meet California's 30 year-old fire safety standard, which requires padding in furniture be able to withstand 12 seconds of contact with an open flame without catching on fire. While the law does not mandate the use of PBDEs, they are considered by far the cheapest way to meet the standard.
The levels measured in California homes were even higher-four to ten times higher than people in other states, and 200 times higher than those recorded in European homes.
Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, carried a bill this session that would have banned the use PBDEs. AB 706 died in the Senate in August. He and others have noted that California does not have measurably lower rates of fire deaths, despite having a fire safety standard that is different that most of the rest of the country.
While fire deaths have fallen in recent years, they have done so nationwide due to a variety of factors, Leno said, ranging from fire-safe cigarette requirements to building codes and better sprinkler systems. When these fire retardant chemicals are burned, he noted, they degrade in known carcinogens, particularly dioxin.
"There is no proof that our fire safety standards are saving lives," Leno said. "We are convinced they are killing people, in particular our firefighters."
Leno applauded Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's signing of AB 1879, the Green Chemistry bill from Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles. The bill calls for the California Environmental Protection Agency's Department of Toxic Substances Control to develop guidelines for finding harmful chemicals and replacing them in the industrial and other uses.
But the bill will also mean that chemical-by-chemical bans have essentially been taken out of the hands of the Legislature. Leno noted that there is already a bill that could allow the state to ban PBDEs by regulation. AB 302 was carried by former Assemblywoman Wilma Chan in 2003 and signed by Governor Gray Davis weeks before he was recalled in favor of Schwarzenegger.
It calls for furniture to contain no more than 0.1 percent PDBEs; many pieces of furniture in California today contain 5 percent to 10 percent PBDEs by weigh. Regulations or funding to enforce the AB 302 have never been put into place.
Dr. Asa Bradman, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley, noted that the Silent Spring study focused only on exposure, not on health risks. But he added that animal studies suggest that PBDEs can disrupt hormones in animals-and thus likely in people-in very small amounts.
"A lot of these hormones function in the body at extremely low levels," Bradman said.
Exposure comes mainly through household dust, Bradman said, as the furniture tends the shed brominated compounds. The good news is that largely isn't airborne, and thus breathing it is not the main worry. This is probably why the bloodstream levels measured were only twice as high as other population even though amounts of PBDEs in homes were so much higher than in other states.
The bad news is that this dust tends to end up in higher quantities in children and pets, who to live closer to the floor and often put things in their mouths. In some cases, children have shown levels two to three times higher than their parents.
Among other measurements, researchers collected dust samples in 49 homes in the California towns of Richmond and Bolinas. These were compared with similar collections done in 120 homes in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as well as with published studies from Canada, Europe and several US cities.
As of press time, a representative from the industry-backed American Chemistry Council had not returned a call seeking comment on this report. The group opposed AB 706.