High levels of a common flame retardant used in furniture, computers and cars have been found in the breast milk of a sample of women across the United States, according to a study by an environmental advocacy group published Tuesday.
The report by the Environmental Working Group found that the average level of the bromine-based fire retardant in American women’s breast milk was 75 times higher than the average found in recent European studies.
The flame retardant saves human lives from fires, but research has shown the chemicals can damage memory, learning and hearing in laboratory mice.
Of the 20 American women whose milk was tested in the study, several mothers had among the highest levels yet detected of these chemicals, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).
The PBDEs are added to plastics, electronics, textiles, and construction materials.
The EWG research follows a study published last month from the University of Texas-Houston. In analyzing milk samples of 47 Texas women, the University reportedly found average levels of PBDEs in breast milk from 74 parts per billion.
The EWG study detected an average of 159 parts per billion in the 20 women tested across the country, a record high level.
Some of the chemicals have already been banned in Europe. In August, California enacted the nation’s first ban on two forms of the fire retardants chemicals known to accumulate in the blood of mothers and nursing babies.
At the time of the California ban, the federal Environmental Protection Agency said it was gathering information on PBDEs and was working with the bromine chemical industry to identify alternatives.
Studies have linked some chemicals in the flame retardants to effects on brain function, reduced male fertility and damaged ovarian development.
Levels of toxins double
The levels of PBDEs found in breast milk have doubled in recent years. In 2001, a study found the breast milk of American mothers had 40 times the chemical levels of the highest concentrations in Sweden.
Women were tested from 14 states and 17 cities, including Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles. The highest chemical concentrations were found in mothers from Oregon and Missouri.
While conducting the research, the Environmental Working Group looked for factors or common behaviors among the women which might have affected the findings.
“We probed their habits, their work habits,” Lauren Sucher, spokeswoman for the environmental group told MSNBC.com. “There was no trend, so it tells us it’s a universal problem, that we can’t blame behaviors for the exposure.”
It’s not clear how PDBEs enter the body although it’s possible they are ingested through dust or by other inhalation at home, the group’s study suggested.
Peter O’Toole, spokesman for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, questioned the study’s small sample size of 20 women and noted that the EWG tested milk fat which makes up only about 4 percent of all breast milk. He called the detection levels in the EWG study “low.”
The EWG’s Sucher countered. “Low levels can have high impact. Our concern is why are [the chemicals] there in the first place?”
She added that the sample size was within the range of other studies on the chemicals and that the results were similar. She said the non-profit organization included as many women in the study as they could afford to test.
O’Toole noted that researchers have found little risk to children from one form of the chemical, which is commonly used in televisions, computers, stereos and plastic toys.
However, he told MSNBC.com that the industry group would be interested in working with the EWG regarding its findings.
Despite the concerns raised by the report, the Washington-based group recommends that mothers continue nursing their infants.
Breast-feeding offers numerous nutritional benefits to children and may actually overcome some of the harmful effects of infant exposure to persistent chemicals, the study said.
“We want women to keep breast-feeding because there are so many other advantages, despite the unfortunate news,” said Sucher.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.