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Environmental Factor, July 2012

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Public radio features Birnbaum public health message

By Eddy Ball

Logo for "Living on Earth" on Public Radio International
Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

In addition to a host of papers on flame retardant chemicals, Birnbaum has been a keynote speaker at conferences worldwide. (Photo courtesy of University of Illinois)

Inspired by a new study from a research team led by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., Public Radio International broadcast an interview with Birnbaum June 8 as part of its popular “Living on Earth” series. During the five-minute discussion with host Steve Curwood, Birnbaum addressed concerns about fire retardant chemicals, in a message designed to inform, without unduly alarming, a general audience. 

Published online May 31 by Environmental Health Perspectives, the study attracted the attention of “Living on Earth” editors with its findings of detectable levels of the chemical hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a brominated flame retardant used in polystyrene foams in thermal insulation and electrical equipment, in 42 percent of food samples from Dallas supermarkets. Fatty foods, such as beef, poultry, fish, and peanut butter, were most likely to contain traces of the chemical. In meats, it was likely the result of bioaccumulation. In peanut butter, the culprit was probably contaminated packaging.

An expert in the field who has published a number of studies about fire retardant chemicals, Birnbaum was careful to strike a balance between communicating her concerns about the chemicals in humans and animals, both in food and from exposure to products treated with fire retardants, and reassuring the audience.

“I think it’s important to stress that the levels that we found are very, very low at this point,” she told Curwood, “and, in fact, that the levels are almost a thousand times lower than what has been considered to be a virtually safe dose for these chemicals.”

As Birnbaum explained, she and others have concerns about potential effects of cumulative exposure on the immune and reproductive systems, as well as on the developing nervous system and in endocrine disruption. While there are certainly appropriate applications for fire retardants, such as in airplanes, she said they are probably not as useful in most of the products where they can be found.

“I think the question we should be asking about some of these flame retardants is, ‘Do we really need them in nursing pillows and baby strollers and baby car seats?’” Birnbaum concluded. “I think that’s really a very important question to ask, whether they really are providing a fire safety benefit in all situations.”

Citation: Schecter A, Szabo DT, Miller J, Gent TL, Malik-Bass N, Petersen M, Paepke O, Colacino JA, Hynan LS, Harris TR, Malla S, Birnbaum LS. 2012. Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) Stereoisomers in U.S. Food from Dallas, Texas. Environ Health Perspect; doi:10.1289/ehp.1204993 [Online 31 May 2012].

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