Babies and children are frequently in contact with dust. Some scientists worry that potentially-harmful chemicals found in household dust will result in negative health effects. (Photo by Jason Sellers)
Chemicals that are suspected of being hazardous to human health are being found in household dust. The chemicals are flame retardants used in everything from carpet padding to TV sets. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:
Chemicals that are suspected of being hazardous to human health
are being found in household dust. The chemicals are flame retardants
used in everything from carpet padding to TV sets. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:
The chemicals are known as poly-brominated-diphenyl-ethers, or PBDEs.
Scientists already knew that these flame retardant chemicals where found in
food. Now researchers are finding the chemicals, in household dust.
Heather Stapleton is a research chemist at the National Institute of
Standards and Technology. She authored a study recently published by the
American Chemical Society.
“I went out and collected some house dust samples from areas within the
Washington D.C. metropolitan area, and brought these samples back to the lab
and just did a preliminary measurement looking at PBDE’s in the house dust
samples and found surprisingly high levels in the house dust.”
Researchers are most concerned about how the chemicals affect developing
babies. Babies have more contact with household dust than the rest of us.
The chemicals have been found to cause developmental and nervous system
damage in rats and mice.
Meredith Buhalis and her daughter Zoe. Meredith's breast milk was tested for PBDEs as part of a study by the Environmental Working Group. (Photo by Meredith Buhalis)
Couch cushions often have PBDEs in them... (Photo by Nicholas Sales)
...and so do TVs. Are there any health effects from being surrounded by these chemicals? (Photo by Craig Young)
Flame retardant chemicals help make our lives safer.
The chemicals are designed to keep plastics and foam from
catching on fire, but the flame retardants are worrying some
scientists because these chemicals are turning up in people’s
bodies, sometimes at alarmingly high rates. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:
Flame retardant chemicals help make our lives safer. The chemicals are designed
to keep plastics and foam from catching on fire. But the flame retardants are
beginning to worry some scientists because these chemicals are turning up in
peoples’ bodies. Sometimes at alarmingly high rates. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:
If you take a look around your house, you can find a lot of things that have
flame retardant chemicals in them. They’re in your television set, the cushions
in your couch, and the padding underneath your carpet. They’re known as poly-bromiated-diphenyl
ethers, or PBDEs. And they’re either mixed in or sprayed on plastics and foam to keep a fire
Five years ago a Swedish study found these chemicals were accumulating in women’s breast
milk. Studies in the U.S. followed, and researchers also found PBDEs in Americans, but at
even higher levels. In fact, Americans have some of the highest levels ever measured. And
over time, the levels have been going up.
(sound of baby)
Meredith Buhalis was one of those people measured in a study by an envrionmental organization
called the Environmental Working Group. Buhalis and 20 other first time moms sent in samples
of their breast milk. When the samples were tested, all of them had some level of PBDEs in
them. Buhalis says when she read the results she didn’t know what to think.
“I guess I kind of read the results and the study was like, ‘Oh, well that sort of sucks.’
I wish I knew more about what that meant. ‘Cause I don’t. You know, they don’t know what
Scientists don’t know how or if the chemicals affect human health. And some scientists
think the government and the chemical companies aren’t doing enough to look into PBDEs.
(sound of typing)
In his office at the University of Texas in Dallas, Dr. Arnold Schecter is working on an
article about the flame retardants. He’s been studying toxic chemicals for more than thirty
years. He and some of his colleagues think PBDEs are a lot like another type of chemical…
“It reminds us of PCBs. PCBs structurally are similar to the PBDEs. So there is the worry,
or the concern, that they may have many, if not all, the toxic effect that PCBs have on humans.”
So far the data on PCBs strongly suggest that the chemicals can cause cancer in humans as
well as other human health effects such as damage to the nervous and immune systems. The
companies that manufacture the flame retardants say it’s not fair to compare PBDEs with
PCBs. They say the chemicals are vastly different.
But no one really knows whether the chemicals are similar in the way they affect human
health. That’s because no one’s studied the human health effects of PBDEs.
“Unfortunately, there are no published human health studies and I don’t believe any have
been funded by the federal government to date. Nor by industry, nor by any foundations,
which is a bit different than the situation with PCBs and dioxins years ago when many
studies were being funded.”
Some animal studies suggest that the chemicals can permanently disrupt the hormone and
nervous systems, cause reproductive and developmental damage, and cause cancer. All that
makes scientists such as Dr. Schecter especially concerned about the most vulnerable
population – developing babies.
Because of the concerns, the biggest manufacturer of these chemicals in the U.S. has agreed
to stop making two of the PBDE formulations that were found to accumulate in people. Great
Lakes Chemical says production will stop by the end of this year. The chemicals will be
replaced with another type of brominated flame retardant.
The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum is a trade group that represents companies
that make the flame retardants. Peter O’Toole is the group’s U.S. Director. He says so
far the amount of chemicals found in people doesn’t concern the companies, but the upward
“And again, it wasn’t of alarming numbers, but the manufacturer was concerned that these
numbers were going up nonetheless. And they thought it was prudent, and they talked to the
EPA and EPA thought it was prudent if there was some sort of mutual phase out of those materials.”
Dr. Schecter says he commends the company for taking this step. But he says even though these
two formulations will be phased out, the flame retardants are already in our environment now.
He says his research has found high levels of PBDEs by wiping the plastic casing on television
sets, and in the dust found in homes. He says what’s in our homes now isn’t going to vanish,
so we need to figure out how the chemicals get into us, so we can avoid potential health problems.
For its part, the U.S. Envrionmental Protection Agency says large-scale human health studies
take a long time to develop. An agency spokesperson says the EPA first needs to learn how a
person becomes highly exposed. After that, they say researchers will be able to ask the question,
“for the highly exposed people, are there any health effects?”
(sound of baby)
That leaves people such as Meredith Buhalis, with a lot more questions than answers.
“We are thinking of having another baby, and I think I would really like to know more about
PBDEs. I think about it when I think about that.” (to her daughter) “Oh thank you. Hi, baby.
The Federal government doesn’t plan to regulate the chemicals anytime soon. But some states
aren’t waiting for more studies. A handful of states have placed restrictions on certain
types of PBDEs. And in other states, legislation is pending.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.
While people are now aware of the health benefits of eating fish rich in omega 3 fatty acids like salmon, a study has shown that the risk of high mercury levels and heart disease might counteract those benefits. (Photo by Bartlomiej Stroinski)
Researchers in one state in the region are trying to
find out how much mercury load their residents are carrying.
So far, 300 samples have been collected for the study. And
the researchers have found that one-quarter of Wisconsin men participating in the study have high levels of mercury. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Researchers in one state in the region are trying to find out how much mercury load
their residents are carrying. So far, 300 samples have been collected for the study.
And the researchers have found that one-quarter of Wisconsin men participating in the
study have high levels of mercury. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
The EPA says the safe level for mercury is one part per million. In the ongoing Wisconsin
study, one in four men and one in eight women have more than that in their bodies. The
study subjects volunteered for the study, so officials say they may not represent the
Eating fish contaminated with mercury has long been thought to cause developmental
problems in young children. But now there’s research from Europe showing it can also
contribute to heart disease in adult men.
Lynda Knobeloch is a toxicologist with the Wisconsin Department of Health.
“There have been several studies that show that people who eat fish have less heart
disease because of omega 3 fatty acids, but the European study was able to sort out the
good effects of omega 3s from the bad effects of methyl mercury, and see that the mercury
actually can overwhelm the beneficial effects of omega 3s and actually cause heart disease.”
Wisconsin is requiring its utilities to reduce mercury emissions by 75% over ten years.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.
The latest report on the overall health of the Great Lakes shows mixed progress in cleaning up the lakes. The International Joint Commission says there have been some improvements, but there are still many areas that need to be worked on. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
The latest report on the overall health of the Great Lakes shows
mixed progress in cleaning up the lakes. The International Joint
Commission says there have been some improvements, but there are
still many areas that need to be worked on. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
The IJC is an agency made up of Canadian and U.S. officials who
monitor the overall health of the Great Lakes. Every two years, the
agency issues a report.
This year’s report says the two governments have made progress in
cutting releases of many toxic chemicals. And scientists are closer to
understanding how global climate change is likely to affect the Great
But the report says other issues require urgent attention. It calls for
government action to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired
power plants. Mercury can cause nerve and developmental damage
when it’s eaten in fish.
And U.S. Co-Chair Dennis Schornack says the governments should
do more to stop invasive alien species from getting into the Great
“We still don’t have measures in place that would stop ballast water
mediated transfers of species from abroad; we’ve still got a threat
with the Asian carp coming up the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal
and incomplete funding for the barrier to stop that invasion there.”
The report also urges scientists to figure out why Lake Erie’s water
quality is degrading again, after years of improvement.
And there are always new challenges, according to Canadian Co-Chair Herb Gray.
“There are new families of chemicals getting into the water. The fire
retardants, which are great for your furniture, but not great in drinking
This was the 12th biennial report on Great Lakes water quality. The
report says it’s now time for a comprehensive review of the
agreement between the U.S. and Canada to clean up and protect the
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.