What are PBDEs?

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) are flame retardant chemicals added to products so they won't catch fire or burn so easily if they are exposed to flame or high heat. PBDEs have been used for over 30 years in products such as mattresses, upholstered furniture, foam carpet pads, draperies, television sets, computers, stereos and other electronics, cable insulation, adhesives, and textile coating.

PBDEs can migrate out of flame retardant products and accumulate in indoor air, house dust, and eventually the environment. PBDEs do not break down quickly in the environment and can accumulate in the food chain. They have been found in air, soils, sediments, fish, marine mammals, birds and other wildlife, beef, chicken, dairy products, and people's bodies. In people, some PBDEs can stay in the fat and other tissues of the body for long periods. Some of the highest levels of PBDEs have been found in the United States.

How am I exposed to PBDEs?

The concentrations of PBDEs in human blood, breast milk, and body fat indicate that most people are exposed to PBDEs. You may be exposed to PBDEs through household dust, consumer products, and from residues in food. People who work in enclosed spaces where PBDE-containing products are manufactured, repaired, or recycled may also have a higher level of exposure. PBDE levels reported in children are usually higher than the levels detected in adults. Children are exposed to PBDEs mainly by absorbing PBDE from their indoor environment, from use of consumer products including toys, and from their diet.

Over time, exposure to PBDE flame retardants should decline in the United States as production of two types of PBDEs were voluntarily discontinued by December 2004 and the last type is planned for phase-out in 2013. Exposures will continue from existing building materials, furnishings, and consumer products that contain PBDEs. PBDE use and production continue in other parts of the world so PBDEs may still be in imported products.

For a technical report on how Americans are exposed to PBDEs, see EPA's Exposure Assessment of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers.

What are the health effects of PBDEs?

Animal studies have shown that PBDE exposure during pregnancy and after birth caused problems with brain development in offspring. These studies observed problems with learning, memory, and behavior in mice and rats. Animal studies also found that PBDEs can alter thyroid and other hormone levels.

There is limited evidence of adverse effects in humans. Studies conducted in New York and the Netherlands have measured PBDEs in the bodies of pregnant mothers or in the umbilical cord blood at birth and then followed the children as they matured. Higher PBDEs levels in mothers has been associated with lower measures of intelligence, attention, and fine motor skills in their children. Higher PBDEs in mothers was also associated with longer time to become pregnant and lower thyroid hormones during pregnancy.

Should I be concerned about breastfeeding?

PBDEs can accumulate in breast milk and may be transferred to breastfed babies. It is not known if exposure to PBDEs through nursing can cause health problems in children. We encourage mothers to breastfeed because of the many benefits. Breast milk helps boost a baby's immune system, develop brain tissue, and overcome the effects of prenatal exposure to harmful chemicals. Learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding.

How likely are PBDEs to cause cancer?

We don't know if PBDEs can cause cancer in people. Rats and mice that ate food with decabromodiphenyl ether (Deca-BDE, which is one type of PBDE) throughout their lives, developed liver tumors. Based on this information, the EPA classified decabromodiphenyl ether as a possible human carcinogen.

How do I prevent exposure to PBDEs?

  • Cleaning - PBDEs in indoor dust is one of the primary sources of people's exposure. Reduce your exposure to indoor dust. Use a damp cloth to dust indoor living and working areas. Avoid stirring the dust into the air. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Open windows and doors while you clean. Wash hands after dusting and cleaning.
  • Foam products - New foam items that you purchase today are unlikely to contain PBDEs. However, mattresses, mattress pads, couches, easy chairs, foam pillows, carpet padding, and other foam products purchased before 2005 likely contain PBDEs. Replace older foam products that have ripped covers or foam that is misshapen or breaking down. If you can't replace the item, try to keep the covers intact. When removing old carpet foam, keep the work area sealed from other areas of the house, avoid breathing in the dust, and use a HEPA-filter vacuum for cleanup.
  • Electronics - Deca-BDE has been used in electronics for years but is now being phased out of most electronics. When purchasing electronics, request products that contain no Deca-BDE or other bromine-containing fire retardants.
  • Foods - PBDEs can concentrate in the fat of poultry, red meat, fish and other fatty meats. See how to reduce the fat when preparing and cooking fish (these tips can be applied to other meats). Wash hands before preparing and eating food.
  • Disposal and recycling - PBDEs will continue to pollute the environment unless flame retardant products are disposed of properly. To keep PBDEs out of the environment, dispose of foam containing products and electronics such as TVs and computers at your nearest hazardous waste collection site. Use 1-800-RECYCLE (1-800-732-9253) to find the nearest location.

What has been done to protect the public and environment from PBDEs?

  1. In 2004, manufactures of Penta-BDE and Octa-BDE voluntarily stopped production of these two forms of PBDEs in the United States.
  2. In 2006, the Washington Departments of Health and Ecology published their Chemical Action Plan for PBDEs with recommendations for the legislature.
  3. In 2007, the Washington State legislature adopted RCW 70.76, which placed several restrictions on the use of PBDEs. The Department of Ecology enforces the PBDE law. Under this law:
    • Effective January 1, 2008, no person may manufacture, knowingly sell, or distribute for in-state use products containing PBDEs. Several types of products are exempted from this prohibition, including transportation equipment, medical devices, and certain recycled materials. Deca-BDE is handled differently under the law.
    • Effective January 1, 2008, Deca-BDE is prohibited in mattresses.
    • Effective January 1, 2011, Deca-BDE is prohibited in televisions, computers, and residential upholstered furniture. Before this prohibition could take effect, the law required the Department of Ecology and the Department of Health to identify a safer and technically feasible alternative that met fire safety standards. This was accomplished and published in the January 2009 report, Alternatives to Deca-BDE in Televisions and Computers and Residential Upholstered Furniture.
  4. In 2009, three major producers of the remaining commercial PBDE, called Deca-BDE, agreed with the EPA to stop using Deca-BDE by the end of 2013. See EPA's Deca-BDE Phase-out Initiative.

Content Source: Environmental Toxicology Program