Fire Retardants Emerge as Contaminants of Concern in U.S.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a class of flame retardant chemicals found in a variety of consumer products, from TVs and toasters to mattresses and drapes. In recent years, PBDEs have generated international concern over their widespread distribution in the environment, their potential to bioaccumulate in humans and wildlife, and their suspected adverse human health effects.

In response to these issues, NOAA’s Mussel Watch Program conducted a study of PBDEs in oysters, mussels and sediments, and produced the first national assessment of PBDEs in the U.S. coastal zone. The results of this assessment show that PBDE concentrations in both sediment and bivalve tissue correlate with human population centers along the U.S. coastline. Out of all the Mussel Watch sites in the U.S., Anaheim Bay, CA—located in an industrialized area that includes a military base—had the highest PBDE measurement (8,202 ppb lipid weight for 2004–2007 sampling period).

Top 5 Mussel Watch Sites with the Greatest Increases in
PBDE Concentrations from 1996 to 2004–2007

Mussel Watch Site PBDE concentration (ppb lipid weight) in mussel/oyster tissue in 1996 PBDE concentration (ppb lipid weight) in mussel/oyster tissue in 2004–2007 Percent increase in PBDE concentration from 1996 to 2004–2007
Anaheim Bay, CA 1,112 8,202 638%
Marina del Ray, CA 404 855 112%
Mississippi Sound, MS 40 389 873%
Coos Bay, OR 0 299 N/A
Port Isabel, TX 13 293 2,154%

In the U.S., PBDE levels in people have been rising over the past 30 years and are generally 10–100 times higher than levels measured in people in Europe and Asia (Kimbrough et al, 2009). Flame retardant manufacturers in the U.S. voluntarily stopped producing the PentaBDE and OctaBDE varieties of PBDEs in 2004 and have begun producing alternative flame retardants; however, DecaBDE continues to be produced and used in the U.S. (U.S. EPA, 2010b). On the basis of evidence for cancer in animals, DecaBDE is classified as a possible human carcinogen by EPA (ATSDR, 2004).

How PBDEs Work            Some Products that Contain DecaPBDE             Tips for Avoiding PBDEs
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Closer Look

Relevant Links

NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science - Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment

Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services