Flame Retardants Found in Common Foods

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The dangers of flame retardants are nothing new. At Natural Home, we’ve been advising readers for years to pick natural and organic textiles, furniture and mattresses and to avoid those treated with the toxic chemicals used to make products resistant to open flames. Flame retardants have been known to cause a number of health problems, including heart, liver and thyroid damage, as well as reproductive, developmental and neurological problems.

Unfortunately, avoiding flame retardants may not be as easy as purchasing organic textiles and furniture. Many common foods contain traces of flame retardants–and some at alarming levels, according to a recent study.

Samples of butter tested for the study contained the highest levels of flame retardants. Photo By Robert S. Donovan/Courtesy Flickr.

For the study, researchers tested ten samples from 31 distinct food groups, such as meat, fish and dairy products, for traces of two brominated flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) and hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD). Butter topped the list of most contaminated foods, followed closely by canned sardines and fresh salmon. The lowest detected levels of flame retardants were found in vegetables and dairy products such as whole milk and yogurt.

Although PBDEs were phased out in the early 2000s, brominated flame retardants build up in the body and the environment, storing up in fat tissues of animals and resisting being broken down in the environment. It’s still a little unclear how the PBDEs end up in food products, but common theories include through contaminated animal feed and during product packaging and processing. One aspect of the study’s findings point to this last explanation. During the study, researchers encountered one butter sample that contained PBDE at levels 135 times higher than the others. After some investigating, the researchers determined that the butter’s wrapping contained PBDE at levels 16 times higher than the butter itself, suggesting that the extreme levels came from the wrapping.

As PBDEs persist in the environment, it looks like the only way to prevent further contamination of our bodies is not through savvy grocery shopping, but through stricter regulation standards.

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