Thursday, September 01, 2005

The threat at home

The Tyee reports on the all-too-common presence of PBDEs in our homes - and notes a stark contrast between the apparent threat and the lack of action:
In the late 1990s, scientists discovered that levels of PBDEs in people's bodies was skyrocketing, doubling every two to five years. Worse, testing on laboratory animals suggested that PBDEs can pose some of the same risks as their chemical cousins, the PCBs. As with PCBs, a single dose of PBDEs administered to a laboratory animal during a critical phase of early development can cause permanent aberrations in memory and behavior. "Background" levels of PCBs -- the levels to which someone could be exposed in a fairly ordinary diet in the 1970s and 1980s -- are known to impair the human immune system and reduce IQ, and some scientists worry that PBDEs may have some of the same effects...

Recent tests in Japan, Europe and North America have detected PBDEs in virtually everyone examined, as well as in fish, wildlife, foods and housedust. A February 2005 study, for example, found that Canadian foods were among the most contaminated in the world, with PBDE levels up to 1,000 times higher than those found in tests in European countries...

Fortunately, the most troublesome forms of PBDEs were removed from the North American marketplace last fall. But that doesn't mean that PBDE levels in people have halted their meteoric rise; crumbling foam furniture and other consumer products may continue to be a reservoir for contamination for decades...

So far, most of the political attention paid to PBDEs has focused on removing them from commerce. This is all well and good, but it fails to address the literally billions of pounds of PBDEs already sequestered in homes and workplaces.

While it may help to respond by dusting more often and replacing furniture with PBDE-free models, the article points out that there's a bigger issue in the reckless use of chemicals without proper testing.

This isn't to say that all chemicals should be avoided at all times. But the potential cost/benefit calculation needs to be far more rigorous than it seems to have been. In exchange for the ability to use polyurethane foam in furniture, we're left with a massive stockpile of indestructible, harmful material which was (according to the article) known to be a cousin to long-banned substances such as PCB and DDT. And it appears that Europe and Japan have managed to avoid much of the damage.

Part of the answer should lie in greater international consultation - every country shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel in trying to determine which substances are acceptable for use. But the foundational principle is simply one of risk awareness, whether the threat is as obvious as a hurricane or as subtle as housedust. And neither Canada nor the U.S. has much to brag about on that point.

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