Armed with two studies showing elevated levels of fire retardants in the breast milk of American women, including some Austinites, a Texas environmental group called for a ban on the chemicals Tuesday.
“Brominated fire retardants don’t belong in breast milk, they don’t belong in babies, and they should be phased out as soon as possible,” said Robin Schneider of Austin-based Public Research Works, which is associated with the Texas Campaign for the Environment.
At a news conference Tuesday, Schneider unveiled the most recent study, in which the Washington-based Environmental Working Group used a certified lab to test breast milk from 20 women from throughout the country, including one from Austin.
That study found that the level of fire retardants in the milk of the first-time mothers averaged 75 times higher than those seen in recent European studies. The chemicals are widely used in this country in home electronics and furniture to slow the spread of flames, but they are being phased out in Europe.
A study published last month by researchers at the Dallas regional campus of the University of Texas School of Public Health at Houston measured the levels in breast milk from 23 women at a women’s health clinic in Dallas and 24 from throughout Texas who donated milk to the Mothers’ Milk Bank in Austin. It reported finding levels 10 to 100 times higher than in European women.
The potential for health effects at such levels in humans, including infants, is not clear. No human health studies have been completed, but animal studies have identified damage to the developing brains and the reproductive systems of newborn animals exposed to certain types of fire retardants.
“There are some very reputable scientists who believe the levels we are now seeing in humans may be at the levels that can cause the type of effects seen in the animal studies,” said Arnold Schecter, a professor of environmental sciences at the Dallas campus and lead researcher on the study.
The environmental group’s tests found an average level of 159 parts per billion of the chemicals in breast milk of the 20 women, with a low of 9 parts per billion from a Tennessee woman and a high of 1,078 parts per billion from a Missouri woman. The Missouri woman had the highest level ever reported worldwide, the study said.
The Austin woman, lawyer Leila Feldman, had 44 parts per billion of the chemicals in her breast milk. Feldman, who volunteered for the study, said the results were scary but didn’t stop her from breast-feeding her son Max, now 5 1/2 months old and healthy. She said the decision to continue breast feeding was in part based on studies indicating that there is greater potential for chemicals to enter a child while still in the womb than through breast-feeding.
“I think the health benefits of breast-feeding outweigh the potential risk, so I didn’t stop,” she said.
Like PCBs, a group of synthetic organic chemicals that can cause a number of harmful effects, the chemicals bind easily to fat.
Schecter said he suspects that the chemicals are entering people primarily through the meat, fish and dairy products they eat.
A spokesman for trade group representing the chemicals’ manufacturers said the documented benefits of the fire retardants are significant, with at least 630 people saved from fire deaths annually, but there is no scientific evidence of a health risk from levels seen in humans.
“Some people equate detection (of a chemical) with effects in humans,” said Peter O’Toole, spokesman for the Bromine Scientific and Environmental Forum. “You can’t make that extrapolation.”