Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about flame retardants.

Flame retardants are safe in the short-term, preventing clothing and furniture from catching fire, and unsafe in the long-term, causing lots of devastating health effects. I should pause right here to explain something. You may have noticed that I haven't been keeping up with posting the Tuesday Toxin Talk very regularly, and the reason is simple: this stuff is really depressing! But it's more important to share information about nasty chemicals like flame retardants than it is to keep you blissfully ignorant of the toxins around you, so here we go.

Out of around 175 different flame retardant chemicals, the ones containing bromine - brominated flame retardants, or BFRs - are the most common and controversial. It has already been decades since the first warnings began to emerge that BFRs are linked to terrible health effects, and meanwhile these chemicals have been silently contaminating everything such that they can now be found in significant quantities around the world.

Why? Because one of the most common flame retardants is PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ether), which is classified as a persistent organic pollutant. PBDEs are stable and don't break down very quickly. They are stored in fatty tissues for long periods of time so that when bigger predators eat smaller prey (that in turn eat plants), the former accumulate all of the PBDEs that were ingested along the food chain. We humans, as the world's alpha predators, walk around with the highest concentrations, and therefore do the most damage to our own offspring: pregnant moms pass PBDEs on through their placenta, and nursing moms store the chemical in the fat of their breast milk.

What makes PBDEs so bad is their uncanny resemblance to PCBs: they mimic hormones to mess up really crucial brain and body functions, resulting in a shortened duration of lactation in mothers, poor brain development of cognitive-motor skills, intellectual impairment in children, and an increased risk of cancer. These and other health effects make PBDEs and PCBs so similar that some scientists are referring to PBDEs as "the new PCBs".

On second thought, that might not be so bad, considering how quickly we responded to the scientific proof that PCBs are so horribly bad for us by banning them! But here's where these two chemicals differ: the global bromine industry has created something like an OPEC for BFRs. You can imagine that a group whose purpose is to lobby for the interests of this industry while controlling over 80% of the global production of BFRs is doing everything in its power to stall progress on getting bans in place.

I wish I could end this post by warning you to check the labels of your clothes, carpets, upholstery, and electronics (such as your computer, kitchen appliances, and TV, to name a few) and make conscious decisions with your next purchases. But it's not that easy, because there's no way to tell whether a given item was treated with flame retardants short of scanning it with an expensive instrument that you probably can't get your hands on anyway. Our only recourse is to wait for those bans to take effect.


As I have done previously after sharing particularly hopelessness-inducing news, please feel better after viewing this picture of a very cute puppy:

Photo credits: chemical structure of PBDE; biomagnification; puppy.


  1. That is a ridiculously cute puppy...

    As for the flame-retardants... at least they aren't weaving asbestos into our clothing. Although considering Canada is one of the world's biggest producers and exporters of abestos... maybe it would serve us right?

  2. Sadly I refuse to feel better about this just because "it could be worse". Everything could be worse. More people could have died in Japan. More oil could have spilled last year in the Gulf. That doesn't make any of it okay.

  3. Awww...to the puppy, anyway. Everything else is kind of sucky. I'm more or less resigned to dying from cancer. It seems like the more toxins I consciously avoid, the more I discover are more or less unavoidable. Can't win!

  4. Ugh, I know! That's why I'm so hesitant to post Tuesday Toxin Talks. It seems to be pointless to learn about chemicals that we are powerless to avoid.

    Readers, are you finding this series to be helpful? Or does this just make you want to look the other way?

  5. It's interesting that you wrote about bromine because I was just researching it last week. I was wondering why my bag of flour said "unbromated." Bromine often added to flours to improve elasticity. Although it is a known carcinogen and is banned in European flours, many American flours still contain bromine and it can also be found in the buns and bread at many fast-food chains. I certainly feel helpless sometimes because I can purposefully purchase unbromated flour, but then may be exposed to it when I lay down on my futon.

    As upsetting as your toxin talks are, it is very important that we DO NOT look the other way. Pollution, toxic chemicals, et al are an INJUSTICE and any company that produces them should be help accountable. Like Jennifer, I'm also resigned to getting cancer one day, but why is that acceptable?

    That pyramid, by the way, is a great visual of how toxins concentrate in milk and in animal fat. More good reasons to consume less meat and dairy.

    Don't get discouraged, Andrea. Keep on spreading the truth!

  6. Thanks for your encouragement, Emily!

    I can't believe they put bromine in flour?! For elasticity? When was the last time you bit into a slice of bread and thought, "it's perfect, if only it was more like a rubber band"?

    Good thing I quit fast food chains a decade ago.

  7. Hi Andrea-the puppy did make it all better (at least temporarily). I have been wanting to read the book-so thank you for sharing. I think it's important to share all of the information, regardless of how depressing it is. That will allow others to either ignore it or make an educated decision. Keep on sharing!

  8. Thanks Lori. You're right, I'm not telling people what to do with the information, just providing it so they can make a decision - or not. I'll definitely keep up with it if my readers appreciate it!