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Breast milk is considered the best food for babies. But research has found that harmful chemicals from industry and consumer products can contaminate breast milk, exposing babies at a vulnerable life stage. Now, a new study authored by Toxic-Free Future, Emory University, and Seattle Children’s Research Institute has found toxic flame retardants in the breast milk of U.S. moms. Companies continue to use hormone-disrupting flame retardants in products like televisions despite research showing these chemicals harm health. But some states and companies are taking action to move to safer solutions.

Scientific evidence shows that breastfeeding is still the healthiest for your baby. Breastfeeding improves the baby’s ability to fight infections and is associated with better long-term health outcomes. The mom/baby bond that is created in breastfeeding is very important for future development. Breast milk is the best food that you can give your baby.

“While we know that flame retardant chemicals may be harmful, it is important to remember that breast milk provides significant benefits to newborn and child health. Breast milk is still best for newborns,” explained Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, study co-author and professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Research Institute.


Brominated flame retardants: Chemicals of Concern

Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are a problematic class of chemicals that have been used in products ranging from upholstered furniture and televisions to insulation. Governments have banned a number of these chemicals because of their toxicity, persistence, and tendency to build up in our bodies and in the environment. Unfortunately, companies have continued to replace banned chemicals with other chemicals in the same class. Our own earlier testing found that most companies still use brominated flame retardants in television casings, creating a significant source of exposure in most U.S. homes.

How BFRs threaten our health

Brominated flame retardants have been linked to cancer, harm to brain development, and hormone disruption. They escape from products and have been found in indoor dust and air, outdoor air, surface water, and human blood and breast milk. We are exposed to these persistent chemicals when we come into contact with indoor dust, when we breathe contaminated air in our homes, schools, and workplaces, and through eating many foods. With abundant research showing impacts on child development, we can conclude that exposure to these chemicals is harming  human health and that we should be most concerned about exposures during fetal development and infancy.

Infant exposure to BFRs through breast milk

To learn more about how infants are exposed to brominated flame retardants in breast milk, we recruited 50 first-time moms in the greater Seattle area who were willing to donate breast milk samples. Our partners in Dr. Amina Salamova’s laboratory analyzed the breast milk for a number of flame retardants. Breast milk from every mother contained brominated flame retardants, and we found a total of 25 different chemicals in the samples.

Ten years after key flame retardants known as PBDEs were phased out, they were still present in milk from each mom—but at levels 70% lower than the last time they were measured in the Northwest, showing the success of regulations to reduce exposure. What’s worrisome though is that we found PDBE-replacement chemicals in 88% of the samples, indicating that they also bioaccumulate. These chemicals, called bromophenols, are flame retardants used in electronics that are potent disruptors of thyroid hormones and have been shown to affect hormone levels in infants.


Market and Policy Solutions

The most well-known brominated flame retardants, PBDEs, became the target of regulatory efforts back in 2003, when they were found in the breast milk of 20 U.S. moms. Companies and states began to take action, and chemical producers quickly stopped sale of PBDEs for use in upholstered furniture. Washington became the first state to ban all forms of PBDEs in 2007, and eventually the chemical makers came to an agreement with the U.S. EPA to phase out all PBDE uses. But as our television testing and now our analysis of breast milk show, companies turned to other brominated flame retardants that can also threaten health.

To make sure we don’t continue this pattern of switching out one harmful chemical for another, we need policies that ban the use of the most harmful flame retardants and point companies toward safer solutions. The European Union, New York, and Washington state have all now restricted the use of a broader class—organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs)—in electronics displays. And Best Buy has shown leadership by eliminating OFRs and transitioning to a safer alternative for the enclosures and stands of its private-label televisions. But much more needs to be done by policy makers and companies to ensure only the safest chemicals are used.

What policy makers, manufacturers, and retailers should do:

Local, state, and federal policy makers should follow the lead of New York and Washington in ending the use of these harmful organohalogen flame retardants, and should incentivize the use of safer solutions.

Retailers, product manufacturers, and suppliers should disclose all the ingredients in their products and assess them for hazard.

Retailers, product manufacturers, and suppliers should eliminate organohalogen flame retardants and ensure that any substitutes they use are assessed for hazard and found to be safer, at a minimum GreenScreen Benchmark-2 or higher, to avoid chemicals of high concern. The GreenScreen chemical hazard assessment framework is a method designed to identify chemicals of high concern and safer alternatives.

What you can do to protect your family:

  • Make sure your furniture is free of flame retardants. It should be labeled “CONTAINS NO ADDED FLAME RETARDANTS.”
  • Reduce your exposure to dust by frequent hand washing, regular wet-dusting and mopping, and vacuuming.
  • Ask before you buy: if you’re in the market for electronics, ask the company if it uses organohalogen flame retardants. Purchase from companies that do not use any OFRs.


Read the fact sheet

  1. I.Fact Sheet