More than 1,400 tons of PBDEs were imported into Canada in commercial products in 2000 alone. 

Fire and health — a trade-off?

Chemicals that keep flames low are heating up concern across Canada

Our homes and boats and workplaces may not be burning down as often, or as badly, but what price are we paying? That’s the question a lot of us are asking as recent Canadian-based research made headlines, raising even more concern over the health effects of chemicals used as flame retardants.

The study, done by Dr. Miriam Diamond, a geography professor at the University of Toronto, concluded that chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs or brominated fire retardants for short) are showing up in higher levels in babies and toddlers than in adults, and from sources that many find surprising. The research heats up the fire retardant debate, especially since a number of recent studies have reported that levels of PBDEs in humans and in various environmental samples have been increasing.

According to an article in the Globe and Mail , Dr. Diamond’s research indicates that the average urban Canadian takes in 155 to 1,965 nanograms of PBDEs every day. Babies who breast feed take in even higher amounts – 24 to 28,680 nanograms daily. (Research last year showed that Canadian mothers had the second highest level in the world of PBDEs in their blood.)

So where are these PBDEs in people coming from?

Two everyday sources, according to Dr. Diamond’s research, which will be published in an upcoming edition of Environmental Science and Technology , a journal published by the American Chemical Society: dust and food. (Previous U.S. research showed that food was the main source.)

While no definitive studies have confirmed the effects of these "persistent organic pollutants" found in humans and the environment, brominated fire retardants have been shown to be powerful thyroid disruptors in lab animals. And in test tube experiments, they’ve been found to interfere with human thyroid transport and metabolism.

They might also impair the immune system. As well, some scientists say they might be linked to learning disorders, like attention deficit disorder. One report from a Swedish university suggested that brain development could be affected, especially in early stages, after newly born mice showed neurobehavioral effects at low doses.

According to the American Chemical Society, an interesting case has surfaced. A young man developed symptoms similar to those of dioxin exposure. These included chloracne (as the new Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko suffered after being poisoned by dioxins) and lesions on his feet. At age 13 he developed these health problems after playing computer games for hours a day in an unventilated room. Although it’s impossible to pin down exact cause and effect, when he was 21, PBDEs were found in his fat and parts of his computer monitor.


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