Toxic Tuesdays

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PCBEs)

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE)

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE) are chemicals that are flame retardants – meaning they are added to different materials to make them less susceptible to fires. PBDEs are found in various everyday materials, such as furniture padding, computers, rugs, and electrical wires. They are a synthetic (not naturally found in the environment) subset of the organobromine compounds, chemicals where a carbon molecule is bonded to a bromine molecule. There are 209 different forms of PBDEs, which vary based on what the carbon-bromine structure looks like.

PBDEs were discovered in the 1970s, and since then, several of them have been phased out of production (PentaBDE and OctaBDE), but other versions (such as DecaBDE) are still being manufactured. While some states, such as California and Washington, have banned specific forms of PBDEs from production, there is no national restriction on the production of this chemical as of 2023. It’s also important to note that even for PBDEs that have been banned or phased out of production, the waste from production and manufacturing remains in the environment and causes harm.

The lack of national attention to this class of chemicals is concerning because of the mounting evidence that PBDEs have negative impacts on human health. For example, these chemicals are thought to be endocrine-disrupting. The endocrine system, which oversees the regulation of hormones, is vital to human health. When this system is damaged, it can cause various adverse health effects, such as cancer, reproductive damage, and neurological damage. A case-control study found that exposure to PBDEs was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer among post-menopausal women. Another study found that the BDE-28 compound was associated with an increased risk of papillary thyroid cancer. As for reproductive health, a study on infants reported that pregnancies that had PBDE chemicals in the umbilical cords, those infants were more likely to have lower birth weights. And a chemical that causes fetal abnormalities is called a teratogen, although PBDE does not carry this classification by the Environmental Protection Agency. Evidence of neurological damage has also been in animal studies, where PBDE was found to cause neurotoxic effects on memory, attention, and leaning ability.

Exposure to PBDEs during pregnancy is only one route of exposure to this chemical. Because PBDEs decompose slowly in the environment, they bioaccumulate and build up in the food chain. Fish and other marine life are especially prone to bioaccumulation. Thus, PBDE contamination could be of concern for people who consume a lot of seafood or rely on it as their primary protein source. Another way that people can be exposed to the chemicals is through water. PBDE waste can seep through the ground and contaminate the groundwater sources. Another exposure route, which accounts for an estimated 80% to 90% of exposure for the population, is inhaling contaminated dust particles. For example, PBDE can be found in the dust that accumulates in homes. One study found that individuals who had higher levels of PBDE in the dust at their houses had higher levels of the chemical in their blood serum levels.

PBDEs are considered persistent organic pollutants (POP), and many communities are fighting against this contamination in their backyards. For example, the Alaska Community Action on Toxins (ACAT) has been advocating for years to ban the use of PBDEs in the state. Another group that has been advocating for the ban on PBDEs are first responders, specifically fire-fighter organizations. When blood samples were taken from firefighters, they had brominated dioxins and furans in their bloodstreams. Fire fighters are more exposed to these chemicals because when a house fire occurs, all of the products that have PBDEs in them, such as furniture upholstery, burn up and release these toxic chemicals into the air that the first responders breathe in.

Learn about more toxics

Backyard Talk

Flame Retardants Linked to Lower Intelligence and Hyperactivity in Early Childhood

Researcher at the University of Cincinnati presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics earlier this month showing that prenatal exposure t o chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) is associated with lower intelligence and hyperactivity in early childhood. PBDEs have been used for decades as flame retardants to reduce the impact of fires in everyday products such as furniture, carpeting and electronics.

The authors collected blood samples from 309 pregnant women enrolled in a study at the university to measure PBDE levels. After the children were born, the authors conducted intelligence and behavioral tests annually until the children were 5 years old. PBDE levels in blood were found to be associated with deficits in child cognition at age 5 and with hyperactivity at ages 2 to 5 years. A ten fold increase in PBDE blood levels was associated with about a 4 point IQ deficit in 5-year old children.

Although PBDEs except deca-PBDE are no longer used in the U.S. as flame retardants, they are found in many consumer products bought years ago. In addition, these chemicals are highly persistent in the environment because they do not easily biodegrade, so they remain in human tissue for years and are transferred to the developing fetus from the mother. Dr. Aimin Chen, the lead author of the study, commented that the “study raises further concerns about [PBDE] sic toxicity in developing children.“ To view the abstract of the paper, “Cognitive Deficits and Behavior Problems in Children with Prenatal PBDE Exposure,” go to

In related news, officials in Europe in charge of three key international treaties reported that delegates agreed by consensus to a gradual phase out the flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane, or HBCD, which is used in building insulation, furniture, vehicles and electronics. HBCD is the third most commonly used brominated flame retardant world-wide following tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) and decabromodiphenyl ether (deca-BDE). The phase out would begin a little more than a year from now, but there also would be specific exemptions for five years on some construction uses in buildings. HBCD will be added to the Stockholm Convention, which now regulates 22 toxic substances internationally including DDT and PCBs. The treaty takes aim at chemicals that can travel long distances in the environment and don’t break down easily. Delegates also agreed to tougher controls on disclosure of information about exports for two flame retardants, PentaBDE and OctaBDE. For more information, see <>.


Backyard Talk

Stop The Madness – You're Hurting Our Children

The future of our country will be the hands of our children.  But what does that mean?  We can raise our children with values and ethics and teach the basic lessons of life, encourage learning and education.  Yet our children and our future children are at risk of not being able to lead our country. Our children risk not being able to succeed in business, in society because of the environmental chemicals that they are exposed to every single day.  Chemicals are leaching from the floors that they crawl on as infants, beds that they sleep on nightly or the toys they play with and put into their mouths, all release dangerous chemicals.  What will their future be like?  How can our country grow and prosper or compete in the global economy?

Recently the Center for Disease our federal health agency reported that 1 out of every 88 American children is affected by autism. That is a 78% increase in autism since 2002 and 23% increase since 2006. As if that is not bad enough, the agency also reports that 14% of American children are affected by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Of course not all of these problems are the result of chemicals in a child’s environment but a good percentage are.  Looking at the chemicals that are in every day products, ones that are linked to these particular diseases, it is clear society can prevent the harming of children.  PCBs, for example are fond in our environment, in lighting and windows of schools built before 1980.  Lead is found in toys imported from other countries; paint in older building, homes, play grounds and around various industrial sites.  Brominated flame retardants are in mattresses, pillows, clothing and all types of furniture. Also there are Endocrine disruptors like phthalates found in PVC products that are all around us in flooring, toys, pipes, shower curtains and binds.

Not a single one of these chemicals in products are necessary for life or for comfort.  Every one of them can be taken out of children’s environment today.  We know how, and we know where to find and remove these threats.  We are just lacking the political will.

Our politicians need to stop the madness and find the conviction and courage to stand up to Corporate America and say no more . . .”Our children will no longer be sacrificed.”

If I as a parent deliberately, knowing harmed my child I would go to jail, yet in America corporations are above the law and spend huge amount of money to keep their unsafe product from being eliminated in our marketplace and environment.

Just look at the statistics above or the rising cancer incidence in children across the country.  This is an election year where we have a chance to ask the hard questions and vote out of office those that intend to harm our children to protect corporate interests.  Everyone needs to get involved, today, so that we together can reverse the trend and protect our futures. For more information

Backyard Talk

Burn Baby Burn

Last week, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles that uncovered a devious relationship between the tobacco and chemical industries. It’s hard not to be outraged – no matter how cynical you might be – by the tactics used by the chemical companies that made flame retardant products to convince the American public that furniture needed to be treated with chemicals to protect life and property in the event of household fires. This 4-part series, titled “Playing with Fire,” makes clear the calculated efforts of this segment of the chemical industry to dupe the American public.

The first article in the series lays the background to this extraordinary expose. “These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals, created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the fear of fire and helped organize and steer an association of top fire officials that spent more than half a decade campaigning for their cause.”

The source of the information used in this series was internal memos, speeches, strategic plans, correspondence and other materials among more than 13 million documents made public after the tobacco companies settled lawsuits related to health claims brought by victims. These documents also reveal the influential role that Big Tobacco played in the extensive use of toxic chemicals in American furniture.

According to the Tribune series, this relationship began when Big Tobacco came under attack when smoldering cigarettes sparked fires leading to deaths (see Part 2 in the series). One choice facing the tobacco companies was to make a fire-safe cigarette that was less likely to start a fire. But the industry insisted that they couldn’t make a fire resistant cigarette that would still attract smokers. Instead, they shifted attention to the furniture (ands away from cigarettes) and promoted fame retardant couches and chairs. To achieve this goal, Big Tobacco poured millions of dollars into an “aggressive and cunning campaign to ‘neutralize’ firefighting organizations and persuade these far more trusted groups to adopt tobacco’s cause as their own.”

Part 3, “Distorting Science,” describes how the makers of flame retardant chemicals manipulated research findings to promote their products and down play health risks. The article tells us that “the industry has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry funded reports as rigorous science.” There was also a prominent burn doctor speaking in support of flame retardants as part of a campaign of deception and distortion on the efficacy of these chemicals.

Lastly, Part 4 describes the pathetic efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America’s health and environment, which allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without rigorously evaluating the health risks.

This series makes it clear that fire retardant materials used over the years are not effective and some pose serious health risks. They have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. Lots of household furniture is full of these chemicals. Worse, they escape from the furniture and settle in dust that is particularly dangerous for infants who crawl and play on the floor constantly putting things in their mouths.

If ever you had doubts about the lengths that big business will go to deceive and “pitch” the public, including politicians and bureaucrats, look no further than this series. It‘s an education in corporate behavior gone awry.