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Study: Breast Milk of Texas Women Has High Levels of Chemical

Sep 20, 2003 | AP The breast milk of Texas women might contain a higher level of flame-retardant chemicals, which research has shown causes brain damage in newborn rodents, according to a new study.

The study, which looked at 47 women in the state, found that their level of contamination of PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, was 10 to 100 times greater than that found in European women, the Houston Chronicle reported Saturday.

In Europe, PBDEs have been used less by industry and are now banned. In 1998, Swedish scientists reported that levels of PBDE in breast milk had increased 40-fold since 1972.

Studies have shown that North American women have the highest levels of PBDE in the world, nearing levels shown to damage memory, behavior and learning in laboratory mice. The chemical is used in furniture padding and electronics to prevent fires.

Like PCBs, a toxic viscous liquid that was commonly used for electrical insulation, and banned pesticides such as DDT, PBDE is a persistent organic pollutant. It can remain in the environment for years without breaking down. Some of these pollutants have such an affinity for fat that they build up in the bodies of both animals and humans from before birth until death.

Arnold Schecter, the principal investigator of the Texas study, said while the sample size is small, it is alarming that every woman showed signs of PBDE contamination.

"Their detection in breast milk raises concern for potential toxicity to nursing babies and indicates a need for more detailed investigation of the levels in people and food," said Schecter, a professor of environmental sciences at the Dallas regional campus of the University of Texas School of Public Health at Houston.

The researchers analyzed individual milk samples from nursing mothers ages 20 to 41 from a milk bank in Austin and a women's health clinic in Dallas.

A spokesman for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, an industry group, said PBDEs are safe.

"I think when you balance the two out, the benefits of fire protection far outweigh the risks," said spokesman Peter O'Toole.

The Environmental Protection Agency says it is evaluating the chemicals, but has previously cleared them for use as a fire retardant.

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