The New York Times
By: Julie Scelfo
For about a decade, scientists have known that most Americans have minute quantities of flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, PBDEs, in their bodies, but they were not sure how they got there.
Now a study has found what the authors say is the first documented case of serious PBDE contamination of food in the United States. The authors of the study, in the February issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, bought packages of 10 brands of butter at grocery stores in Dallas and shipped frozen samples to a laboratory in Germany. Sophisticated tests there found trace amounts of PBDEs in each sample, with one having 2,000 times more than the others.
“It’s very startling,” said Dr. Arnold Schecter, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health at Dallas and an adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency. “It was so much higher than we had ever seen before, and this just stood out like a sore thumb.”
After further testing, the researchers, who include the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, concluded the butter with the highest level of PBDEs was probably contaminated by chemicals in its wrapper.
The Environmental Protection Agency says PBDEs, which are widely used in furniture foam, consumer electronics and small appliances, accumulate in the body and may damage the liver and thyroid and cause neurodevelopmental problems. But Dr. Schecter and other scientists are quick to insist the findings should not cause anyone to stop eating butter. (According to two scientists who were not involved with the study, the average adult would have to consume more than 28 pounds of the highly contaminated butter each day before the quantity would reach levels the Environmental Protection Agency considers risky.)
The research is further evidence of why the Food and Drug Administration “should do a better job of studying how food is contaminated with PBDEs and other chemical pollutants,” Dr. Schecter said. “Just as lead and dioxins and PCBs have been lowered in the environment and in food, government action can reduce the amount of PBDEs in the environment.”
While the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act gives the agency greater authority over the nation’s food supply, Douglas Karas, an F.D.A. spokesman, said there were no plans to require manufacturers to test specifically for PBDEs.