February 14, 2005
From Globe and Mail Monday, February 14, 2005 Updated at 1:20 AM EST By ANDRÉ PICARD and AVIS FAVARO

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 countries.

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 flags.

"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. Schecter said.

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 humans."

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."!

André Picard is the public health reporter at The Globe and Mail.

Avis Favaro is the medical reporter at CTV News.