- Everyday foods consumed by Canadians - such as salmon,
ground beef, cheese and butter - are laced with chemical flame retardants,
according to research commissioned by The Globe and Mail and CTV News.
- In fact, the research found that Canadian foods are among
the most contaminated with polybrominated diphenyl ethers in the world,
with levels up to 1,000 times higher than those found in tests in European
- PBDEs are a class of about 25 chemicals that are used
as flame retardants in foams, textiles and plastics. They are ubiquitous
in modern homes, with the chemicals leeching out of furniture, rugs and
electronic products, such as televisions and computers. It is not known
exactly how PBDEs migrate from such products into human tissue, but they
have been found in industrial sewage sludge, in wildlife and in fatty foods
such as meat and fish.
- It is unclear what impact the regular absorption of PBDEs
has on human health. Nor have scientists established safe levels for the
chemicals in humans.
- But scientists do say that research conducted on animals
- which suggests these chemicals can impair memory, cause learning disabilities
and alter thyroid hormone levels - is disquieting and should raise red
- "These are persistent toxic chemicals... and certainly
it is undesirable to have these toxic chemicals in our food supply,"
said Arnold Schecter, a professor of environmental sciences and public
health at the University of Texas, who has done pioneering work on PBDEs.
- Research done last year on a group of B.C. women found
high levels of PBDEs in their breast milk, but the source was unclear.
- "All of a sudden you find out you have something
awful in your body and you wonder: 'Where is it coming from?'" said
Erin McAllister, a Vancouver mother who took part in the study. "We
all suspected it was coming from the food."
- To find out, The Globe and Mail and CTV News commissioned
an independent laboratory, Axys Analytical Services Ltd. of Sidney, B.C.,
to test 13 foods commonly consumed by Canadians.
- Flame retardants were found in virtually all the foods,
sometimes at relatively high levels. Farmed rainbow trout had levels of
PBDEs of 3,638 parts per trillion and farmed Atlantic salmon 1,942 ppt.
Sausage had 242 ppt and butter 384 ppt, while cheese had PBDEs levels of
23 ppt and milk 10 ppt. Only chicken had virtually undetectable levels.
Environmental chemicals tend to accumulate in fat, so not surprisingly
fattier foods had higher levels.
- "Even though we don't know exactly the meaning of
these levels for the health of children or adults... we think the smaller
the amount, the safer it would be for people eating the food," Dr.
- But Samuel Ben Rejeb, associate director of the bureau
of chemical safety in the health products and food branch of Health Canada,
said the level of PBDEs in the country's food supply has been closely monitored
for years and there is no cause for alarm.
- "The levels found in food are very low. They vary
in parts per trillion and very low parts per billion - levels that in general
were found to not pose a health risk for Canadians."
- Dr. Ben Rejeb noted that while food is one of the ways
people are exposed to PBDEs, it is not the only one and likely not the
biggest source of exposure.
- Dr. Schecter said that while it is easy to dismiss levels
in food as insignificant, the chemicals do accumulate in the body. He said
it's also likely PBDEs pose similar risks to human health as their chemical
cousins, polychlorinated biphenyls. The use of PCBs was curtailed in the
1970s after they were found to cause birth defects, impair brain and memory
functions, and increase the risk of some forms of cancers.
- Many European countries have clamped down on the use
of PBDEs in the past decade on the assumption that the chemicals are not
good for humans.
- Peter O'Toole, program director for the Bromine Science
and Environmental Forum, the group that represents manufacturers of flame
retardants, said PBDEs "have never been demonstrated to have any human
or environmental effects. We're far below any level of potential risk to
- The benefits of adding these chemicals to household products
and mitigating the impact of fires is well established, Mr. O'Toole said.
(Fires claim about 400 lives a year in Canada; these rates have fallen
since fire retardants became widespread, especially in furniture, although
many officials attribute the change to falling smoking rates.)
- Beverly Thorpe of Clean Production Action, a Montreal-based
consumer group, said the new data on levels of PBDEs in common foods reaffirm
her belief that these chemicals should be banned.
- "I think it's scandalous that we are still allowing
chemical producers to manufacture these chemicals... It's scandalous that
we are allowing industry to use them as flame retardants."
- Ms. Thorpe said her biggest concern is the impact on
children who are exposed to these chemicals over a long period of time,
and could develop physical and developmental problems. (One popular but
unproved assumption is that the rise in rate of attention-deficit hyperactivity
disorder is due to PBDEs.)
- "Any synthetic chemical we are finding in breast
milk and food has got to be a major alarm signal that we have to stop production
of these chemicals," she argued.
- Ms. McAllister shares those concerns and is worried about
her daughter Jessica, now 18 months old. "Children are inhaling these
poisons every day... breathing it and eating it every day."!
- - Andre Picard is the public health reporter at The Globe
- - Avis Favaro is the medical reporter at CTV News.
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