Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)


PBDEs, a subgroup of brominated flame retardants, are persistent and bioaccumulative industrial chemicals that cause numerous problems including Cancer, thyroid problems, and neurodevelopmentaleffects (Schmidt, 2003) (Eriksson et al, 2006). They have been widely used since the 1970s as flame retardants in electronics, textiles, and polyurethane foam, among others (Stiffler, 2007 and Birnbaum, 2004). They are mixed into the products in order to raise the temperature at which they burn, making the products more flame resistant. PBDEs are released from products when TVs or computers heat up, while sleeping on mattresses, or when the products degrade (Stiffler, 2007).


PBDEs enter the air, water, and soil when they are put into products or when they exit products as a result of degredation (ATSDR, PBBs and PBDEs). They biomagnify up the food chain and are stored in fats. They are now ubiquitous in the environment – found from the Arctic to the Antarctic – and are present in nearly all human bodies (Stiffler, 2007).

Health Effects

Very serious health effects are associated with exposure to PBDEs, but toxicity depends on the compound and the amount that one is exposed to. PBDEs are chemically similar to PCBs and, not surprisingly, they show similar health effects as well (Sightline). They are biomagnified toxic compounds, meaning they accumulate within food chains. Laboratory studies on mice have shown them to be neurotoxic chemicals, neurobehavioral and developmental toxicants, and Carcinogens. They have noticeable affects on the thyroid and liver (Schmidt, 2003Birnbaum, 2004, and ATSDR, PBBs and PBDEs) and they impair learning, memory, sexual development, and behavior (Sightline). Additionally, PBDEs and PCBs – still present in the environment – can “interact and enhance neurobehavioral defects when the exposure occurs during a critical stage of neonatal brain development” (Eriksson et al, 2006).

Exposure to PBDEs is nearly impossible to avoid due to their ubiquity in the air, water, food, human fat, and breast milk (ATSDR, PBBs and PBDEs). The fetus is exposed to the toxins in utero as well as from breast milk, which  where the toxins are transferred from the mother to the baby. A 25-year Swedish study found that the concentration of PBDEs in breast milk doubled every five years during the 25-year period (Eriksson et al, 2006).

Current Events

PBDEs have been detected in various fish across the West Coast in the United States. A 2006 report   from the Environmental Working Group uncovered the flame retardant in Washington rivers and lakes. From 1997 to 2003 , levels of PBDEs (prolybrominated diphenyl ethers) doubled in San Francisco Bay fish, such as striped bass and halibut

Washington State Legislation
Washington State became the first state in the country to ban the use of all forms of PBDEs when Governor Christine Gregoire signed the legislation in April of 2006 (La Corte, 2007. The measure prohibits the manufacture, sale, or distribution of most items containing PBDEs.