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How Toxic Flame Retardants Pollute Us

High-tech tools reveal PBDEs escaping from appliances


Thomas Webster, an SPH associate professor of environmental health. Photo by Vernon Doucette

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.

To read more about Webster and McClean’s research into the dangers of PBDEs, read "Trouble at Home," in the summer 2008 issue of Bostonia magazine. Click here to read the story on BU Today.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.


One Comment on How Toxic Flame Retardants Pollute Us

  • jahnke on 03.26.2009 at 4:51 pm

    Is there a test?

    I very much appreciated Art Jahnke’s article in BU Today on “How Toxic Flame Retardants Pollute Us,” as well as the Nov. 10, 2008, article on “The Chemical Threat at Home.” I found the articles informative, as well as cause for concern; and I am grateful for the work you are doing in this area of Public Health.

    I am writing to ask a question, that perhaps many consumers have. I wonder if there is a way to test our home environments. In particular, I bought a couch a couple of years ago, and I noticed that sitting on it made me sleepy. I thought it might be more than just how comfortable it is!

    If I were to snip off a piece of the fabric from the couch, is there a place I could send it to have it tested? Is this a complicated, expensive process? Do you know if the store where I bought it is required by law to tell me if such chemicals are in the retardant? Can you say if the particle releases from the couch lessen or increase with time (versus the wear and tear on plastic appliances)? While there may be other items in my home that might be giving off unwanted particles or chemicals, this is the main item I am concerned about.
    I would encourage you to share the answers with a wider audience.
    Again, with gratitude for your and your associates’ work and the public service service it’s providing and to Mr. Jahnke for his articles.

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