Reducing Your Exposure to PBDEs

You may never have heard of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), but chances are you have them in your bloodstream. PBDEs are commonly used flame retardants that have been found in everything from human breast milk to birds’ eggs. Multiple studies link these bioaccumulative chemicals to neurodevelopmental deficits in children, lowered testosterone levels in men, reduced fertility in women, and thyroid disruption. In 2010, after years of study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that PBDEs are bioaccumulative and toxic to both humans and the environment and began working on a voluntary phase out of the chemicals by the end of 2013.

The phase out is a good first step, but the fact of the matter is that many of the products containing PBDEs will remain in use for a long time. Plus, PBDEs can be stored in the body for years. There are, however, steps you can take to help minimize your exposure.

A recent study of PBDEs in the workplace shows that hand washing may be people's first and best line of defense. The study tested 31 adults working in 8 different office buildings around Boston. PBDEs where found in every work space (think carpeting, chairs, computers, etc.) tested, including the one newly constructed building included in the study. Despite such prevalence, workers who washed their hands at least four times a day had lower levels of PBDEs on their skin and blood levels of PBDEs that were about three times lower than people who washed their hands less frequently. The study made the important discovery that people aren’t coming into contact with PBDEs by inhaling them, but rather they're absorbing them through their skin or eating them. So, regardless where you work, make sure to lather up often throughout the workday.

PBDEs are prevalent in homes as well. They are most commonly found in polyurethane foam products (i.e, carpet padding, mattresses, pillows, couches, etc.) and electronics. And again, there are measures you can take to minimize your exposure.

  • Inspect furniture, pillows, car seats, and any other household items containing foam. Replace anything that's lost its shape or appears to be breaking down. Make sure foam remains completely encased in protective fabric. This is especially important for items made before 2005. U.S. manufacturers stopped using PBDEs in foam furniture in 2005, so new foam goods are unlikely to contain PBDEs.
  • Use a HEPA filter vacuum. HEPA filters are designed to trap very small particles, picking up pollutants, dust, and allergens that would normally remain in the air. A trademarked HEPA filter (beware "HEPA-type" or "high-efficiency" filters) removes at least 99.97% of dust, smoke, lead, mold, and PBDE particles.
  • Never reupholster foam furniture. Even if they don't contain PBDEs, they may contain other less studied fire retardants with potentially harmful effects.
  • Take care removing old carpet. Try to keep the kicked up dust and fabric particles contained and to a minimum. When done, vacuum with a HEPA filter vacuum and mop to remove as many particles as possible. Wear protective clothing and shower afterward.
  • Shop wisely. When buying something new check what type of fire retardants may have been used. Avoid products with brominated fire retardants. Opt for less flammable fabrics and materials, like wool, silk, leather and metal.
  • Keep young children from touching and mouthing electronics and appliances likely to contain PBDEs. This includes remote controls, cell phones, and TV components.
  • Purchase electronics from companies that have committed not to use PBDEs. The following companies have publicly committed to phasing out all brominated fire retardants: Acer, Apple, Eizo Nanao, LG Electronics, Lenovo, Matsushita, Microsoft, Nokia, Panasonic (from mobile phones and computers), Phillips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony-Ericsson, and Toshiba.
  • Make sure everyone in your household washes their hands with soap and water before eating.
  • Check the tag on those footsie pajamas. Children are exposed to PBDEs not only from wearing flame resistant sleepwear, but also from mouthing the fabric putting them at increased risk. Wal-Mart recently announced that it has banned PBDEs from all of its consumer goods and will be conducting tests to verify that suppliers are complying with their ban. Hopefully, more companies will follow Wal-Mart's lead. Until then, keep a careful eye on the labeling on children's sleepwear (where most of the PBDEs in children's clothing are used). Opt for pajamas made of natural fibers with tags stating “must be snug fitting” and “not flame resistant.”

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