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This website provides resources on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) such as pesticides, dioxins, PCBs, and wastes. Valuable examples of community monitoring of health and environmental impacts of toxic chemicals are also furnished.

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Canada: Flame retardant in breast milk raises concern

by Martin Mittelstaedt, Globe and Mail

The breast milk of Canadian women contains the second-highest levels in the world of a compound used as a flame retardant in computer casings and household furniture, according to a new survey compiled by Health Canada.
The highest amounts of the contaminants, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, were detected in the milk of nursing U.S. mothers.

But women in Canada had levels about five to 10 times those in other advanced industrial countries, such as Japan, Sweden, and Germany.

The amounts in U.S. women were double those in Canada, and exceptionally high compared to those elsewhere in the world.

The international comparison was made by Jake Ryan, a research scientist at Health Canada, who is presenting the finding later today at a conference in Toronto devoted to the controversial chemicals, which some scientists fear may be as dangerous as the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that were banned as an environmental hazard in the 1970s.

Health Canada official Samuel Ben Rejeb said the department is studying why levels in Canadian women are so much higher than elsewhere in the world.
Health Canada and Environment Canada recommended last month that some forms of PBDEs be declared toxic and eliminated from use. The European Union has already issued restrictions on the substances, and several U.S. states plan to follow suit.

"This is a poster-child chemical for something that ought to be zeroed out," says Tom Muir, a researcher at Environment Canada who has studied PBDEs and is worried they may be contributing to thyroid disorders and children's health problems.

Although the federal government is proposing restrictions on PBDEs, Health Canada concluded that human exposure from sources such as breast milk had not yet reached harmful levels.

But Mr. Muir said PBDE levels in the breast milk of a small number of women surveyed in North America are approaching the critical concentrations associated with health impairment from PCBs.

The highest reading in Canada was of one woman who had 956 parts per billion of PBDEs in the fat of her breast milk.

The highest in the U.S. was just over 1,000 ppb. The average breastfeeding woman in Canada has concentrations of about 60 ppb. Samples were taken in all regions of Canada.

PCB concentrations become of concern when they reach 1,250 ppb, according to Mr. Muir.

Health Canada said confidentiality reasons prevented it from seeking clues on why concentrations seem to vary so wildly.

Mr. Ryan based his findings on a survey of almost all of the studies in the world that have analyzed mothers' milk for the chemical. Scientists have checked milk samples from Sweden and Japan dating back to the early 1970s, finding almost no PBDEs.

But over the past three decades, increasing amounts of PBDEs have been added to consumer products such as TV sets, computers, and the polyurethane foam used in furniture to make them less likely to burn during a fire.

Levels in human milk have been rising in tandem with the growing use of the product, and in Canada are now four times those in the early 1990s. International comparisons made by Mr. Ryan indicate that breast milk has about 100 times more PBDEs than samples collected 30 years ago.

Health Canada has been studying the chemical because of fears it is a new pollutant in the food supply.

"We were interested in PBDEs as a new emerging class of persistent organic pollutant," said Mr. Ben Rejeb, who is associate director of Health Canada's bureau of chemical safety.

He said that while levels of most other harmful industrial chemicals found in breast milk, such as DDT, PCBs, and dioxin, have been falling in recent surveys, PBDE concentrations have risen rapidly.

"This is unlike the other persistent organic pollutants."

Health Canada denied a request from The Globe and Mail to interview Mr. Ryan about his findings, but had Mr. Ben Rejeb answer questions about his colleague's work.

It is not known exactly how PBDEs migrate from consumer products into human tissue. They have been found in household dust and sewage sludge, in many fatty foods such as meat and fish, and in wildlife.

Although there is little research on human health and PBDEs, recent animal experiments with the chemical have linked it to learning difficulties, memory impairment, and alterations in thyroid hormone levels.

The similarity of these effects to those of childhood attention-deficit disorders, and the rising tide of adult thyroid problems, have led to calls for studies into whether PBDEs and other pollutants play a role in these ailments.

Mr. Ben Rejeb said Health Canada has been checking PBDE levels in food to see if there is a link to the breast-milk findings.

The department has found the contaminant is present at about the same levels in Canadian and European food, suggesting the high Canadian readings in breast milk are due to some other source.

Because they're in computers and furniture, PBDEs are probably found in large numbers of homes and offices.

But they are also present in many manufacturing companies and recycling centres that deal with high-technology waste. "It would have to be related to the use of PBDEs," Mr. Ben Rejeb said.

©heal toxics, 2003
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