Northwest Environmental Watch has just released results of a study of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in 40 women in the Pacific Northwest, and compared the levels of this toxic chemical to levels found in women in other parts of the country and the world.

Women in Oregon, Washington, Montana and British Columbia have PBDE levels in their breastmilk 20 times higher than women in Sweden (which has banned PDBEs), and levels similar to those found in other North American women.

PBDEs are a type of flame retardant used in many common products, such as the plastics in computers, televisions and other home electronics, furniture foam and synthetic fabrics. When these are manufactured or break down, the PBDEs become airborne and so they exist in the air we breathe. They also get into water and our food supply.

The Unites States uses more PBDE products than any other nation in the world. We use 95 percent of the world's penta-PBDE mixture, used in polyurethane furniture foams. This penta-PBDE is the type most likely to build up in humans and animals.

Since PBDE contamination was recognized in the 1990s, scientists have found that the levels of PBDE in the environment and people have been doubling every two to five years.

Contamination from PBDEs is not limited to breastfeeding women - it affects us all: men, women and children, young and old. Breastmilk was used in the study simply because it's the easiest body fluid to collect. The presence of chemicals in breastmilk reminds us that infants who are the most vulnerable to the effects of toxic substances are at risk.

PBDEs and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) have very similar chemical structures. PCBs were used as coolants and insulators in the manufacture of fluorescent lights, transformers and other electrical devices. They do not break down, but instead persist in the environment - air, water and soil - and tend to build up in fish and marine mammals.

PCBs have been clearly linked to health problems in humans. They affect the neurological and immune systems, and are also know to cause cancer in animals. Children who were exposed to PCBs before birth and in early childhood showed abnormal behavior, problems with motor skills and memory problems. Their IQs were lower, and they had other developmental deficits.

PCBs were banned entirely in 1977. Unfortunately, PCBs still persist in the environment despite the ban on new production. Many Great Lakes fish have such high levels of PCB contamination that advisories against eating these fish have been in place for years.

In laboratory studies, PBDEs harm brain development in young mice, causing permanent neurological deficits and behavior abnormalities. They interfere with thyroid function and affect sexual development.

The similarities between PCBs and PBDEs raise a red flag for scientists and environmentalists. They hope the United States will follow the lead of Sweden and now the European Union, which is phasing out PBDE use by the end of the year.

There is no way to avoid PBDEs completely. It is in the air we breathe and the food we eat. You can reduce your risk by avoiding exposure to crumbling foam in furniture and carpet padding. Also, reduce your consumption of fat in meat and dairy products, since PBDEs build up in animal fats. The Web site: has more suggestions.

Most importantly, support legislation that will phase out the use of PBDEs. In Washington, the Department of Ecology held public hearings on the PBDE action plan of Oct. 19 and Oct. 26. In Oregon, the Oregon Environmental Council is working with state legislators to pass a bill in the 2005 legislative session to phase out the use of PBDEs.

Kathryn B. Brown is a family nurse practitioner with a master's degree in nursing from OHSU. Is there a health topic you would like to read about? Send ideas to You can find more local health news and information in the Health section at

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