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New chemicals, old problem: toxic flame retardants in breast milk

Twenty years ago, few people in the United States knew that chemicals used as flame retardants in furniture and televisions could build up in our bodies and be passed on to our children via breast milk. That changed when a shocking 2003 study (led by Sonya Lunder, now Sierra Club Toxics Advisor) was published finding the toxic flame retardants known as PBDEs in the breast milk of 20 U.S. mothers, with extremely high levels in the milk of two moms. This important finding spurred a movement to ban these chemicals and find safer replacements, with state bans leading ultimately to a national phaseout.

Unfortunately, the phaseout of PBDEs also became a case study in “regrettable substitution,” the tendency of the chemical industry to reach for an alternative that may be just as problematic as the phased-out compound. In furniture, cancer-causing chlorinated Tris became prevalent; for televisions, our own studies have shown that the industry moved to other members of the harmful brominated flame retardant class. These include DBDPE, which is almost identical to a key PBDE compound, and TTBP-TAZ, found in televisions along with hormone-disrupting bromophenols.

Our research finds newer flame retardants in breast milk

Together with our collaborators at Indiana University and Seattle Children’s Research Institute, we wondered whether these new flame retardants would also contaminate breast milk. We recruited 50 moms from in and around Seattle to donate a breast milk sample, and Dr. Amina Salamova’s lab at Indiana University measured a broad suite of flame retardants in these samples. We found that the actions taken on PBDEs worked—levels in the Northwest declined by 70% since they were last measured 20 years ago. However, some of the same new flame retardants we found in televisions also contaminated nearly all the breast milk samples. Besides PBDEs, the flame retardants we found most commonly were the bromophenols, which like PBDEs can disrupt hormones and may harm brain development.

States and retailers can solve this problem

Some states and countries have already taken action to address the problem of the continued use of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants. These chemicals belong to the class of organohalogens, long known for their tendency to persist and build up in our bodies and cause harmful effects. The European Union and New York have banned the use of organohalogen flame retardants in electronics displays (think TV and monitor casings) as of 2021. And this year, Washington state banned them in enclosures for all electric and electronic products starting in 2025, after finding that safer alternatives are feasible and available.

It’s maddening to find current-use brominated flame retardants in breast milk, 20 years after contamination with PBDEs rang alarm bells. Clearly, policies need to do more than ban the use of chemicals we know cause harm: they need to require the use of safer materials and chemicals. Best Buy provided an example of what can be done when it replaced organohalogen flame retardants in its private-brand TVs with a substitute assessed as safer with GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals. Best Buy has shown it’s possible—now it and other electronics retailers should take the next step and ensure all the electronics they sell contain only safer chemicals.

We’re all tired of getting bad news about what’s in women’s breast milk. It’s time for retailers to make better decisions, and states to push them harder to make sure the chemicals in their products are safe.

TAKE ACTION – tell Best Buy to protect moms and babies by banning organohalogen flame retardants and ensuring substitutes are safer in all electronics.