How Toxic Flame Retardants Pollute Us
High-tech tools reveal PBDEs escaping from appliances
For the past five years, two researchers at the School of Public Health have been breaking ground, documenting the health risks of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), used as flame retardants in furniture and electronic devices.
Thomas Webster and Michael McClean, associate professors of environmental health, were the first to measure levels of PBDEs in dust circulating in rooms with electronic appliances, as well as in people living in those rooms. But there was one thing the scientists couldn’t figure out: how the retardants migrated into the air from things like the plastic housing of televisions.
Now they know. With high-tech help from scanning electron microscopy and other tools of environmental forensic microscopy — some of the same investigative tools used in police laboratories — Webster and McClean found that bromines, elements shed from PBDEs, can distribute in small bromine-rich fragments, likely the result of wear and tear.
“That’s important,” says Webster, “because many people assumed the route was through volatilization,” meaning as gas released by the compounds. “We found very strong evidence for the wear and tear. Somehow, the plastic is breaking down, gradually, into little bits.”
Webster’s work focused on DecaBDE, the last of the toxic PBDE family of flame retardants being manufactured for use in the United States. It was recently banned by the European Union, in good part because PBDEs are known to act as endocrine disruptors in animals, with possible links to cancer.
The latest studies suggest another vector for exposure to high concentrations of brominated flame retardants: plastic and fiber fragments.
Art Jahnke can be reached at email@example.com Comments