A new study reports what scientists believe is the worst documented U.S. case of food contamination with polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. The incident also marks the first time food contamination has been thought to result from PBDEs in a food’s packaging.
One of ten samples of butter purchased at five Dallas grocery stores contained high concentrations of deca-BDE, a PBDE compound widely used in electronics as well as in textiles, wire and cable insulation, and automobile and airplane components. Animal studies have linked consumption of deca-BDE with thyroid hormone changes in adult rodents and neurobehavioral changes in young rodents.
PBDE levels in the contaminated butter were more than 135 times higher than the average of the other nine samples; levels of BDE-209, the main component of deca-BDE, were more than 900 times higher.
The contamination came to light during a routine investigation intended to help scientists improve estimates of the amount of PBDEs and other persistent organic pollutants people inadvertently consume in food. Scientists have detected low levels of these compounds in many fat-rich foods including fish such as salmon, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.
Further investigation revealed the butter’s paper wrapper had PBDE levels more than 16 times greater than levels in the butter itself. It is unclear whether the paper was contaminated before or after it reached the butter packaging plant, according to lead author Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas School of Public Health, Dallas Campus. The source of the contamination also is unclear.
U.S. manufacturers have agreed to end all uses of deca-BDE by 2014, and the European Union phased it out in 2008. However, chemicals don’t vanish from the environment just because they’re phased out, Schecter says, and products containing deca-BDE often are used for many years. The authors of the paper agree their research underscores the need for a regulatory program that samples American food for persistent organic pollutants such as PBDEs.
Schecter’s coauthors include Sarah Smith and Noor Malik of the University of Texas School of Public Health, Dallas Campus; Justin Colacino of the University of Michigan School of Public Health; Matthias Opel and Olaf Paepke of the Eurofins GfA laboratory in Germany; and Linda Birnbaum of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Cancer Institute, U.S. National Institutes of Health.
- Arnold Schecter, Sarah Smith, Justin Colacino, Noor Malik, Matthias Opel, Olaf Paepke, Linda Birnbaum. Contamination of U.S. Butter with PBDEs from Wrapping Paper. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2010; DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1002604
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