'Despite being largely phased out a decade ago because of their adverse health effects, PBDEs continue to show up in everyday products made from recycled plastics.
Environmental and children’s health advocates breathed a sigh of relief when, over a decade ago, U.S. manufacturers began to phase out a number of flame retardant chemicals from furniture, electronics, textiles and other everyday items. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, were facing increasing scrutiny (and some had already been banned in parts of Europe) for impacts on children’s brain development, hormone disruption, reduced fertility, and other adverse health effects, as well as for their ubiquity in the environmentand persistence in the food chain.
Today, though, these chemicals — which include tetra-, penta-, hexa-, hepta- and decaBDE; named according to the number of bromine atoms attached, but all are structurally similar and all tend to bioaccumulate — continue to turn up in people’s lives in everyday plastics, from kitchen utensils to children’s toys, but not because they’re still being used intentionally. Rather, they are inadvertently making their way into our lives as hitchhikers in products made from recycled plastics that contain them.
How exactly chemicals migrate from the plastic into our bodies is an ongoing area of study — do we absorb them through direct contact with the products? Ingest them somehow, or inhale? Studies done on these questions haven’t focused specifically on recycled products, but researchers have repeatedly found that products containing PBDEs release the chemicals into the air and onto dust; families then absorb them through simply breathing indoor air or through their skin by touching household dust. There’s little reason to think that whether a product contains PBDEs through recycled or new plastic makes any difference to how people may be exposed to the substances. Meanwhile, experts say there are better ways to recycle in order to, among other things, reduce the potential risks from chemical additives.
It’s a boomerang effect, says Karolína Brabcová, consumer campaigns coordinator for the Czech environmental organization Arnika. Also a parent, Brabcová is alarmed by the risks these chemicals pose for children in particular. Decades of research has suggested links between PBDEs and neurological deficits, among other health impacts.
“It’s the children who are most sensitive to it,” she says. “If a baby is affected by these chemicals, there’s no way to repair it.”
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