Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a family of flame retardants in widespread use in consumer products, including plastics for electronics and electrical devices.  Because PBDEs are not permanently bonded to the plastic polymers, they migrate out into the environment.

Properties of PBDEs include resistance to biodegradation and affinity for fats, allowing them to persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in the food web.  PBDEs were found in nearly 100% of blood samples in the 2003-2004 NHANES survey.  Consumption of meat, fish and dairy products is thought to be a primary route of exposure.

However, it was the discovery of infant exposure to PBDEs via rising levels in human breast milk in the United States and Europe that set off a chorus of alarm about health risks to humans.

PBDEs have been marketed in the United States in three commercial mixtures, so-called penta, octa and decaformulations.  Because of animal data linking penta and octa to serious health impairments – including liver, thyroid & reproductive toxicity and especially developmental neurotoxicity – domestic manufacture of penta and octa was voluntarily phased out in 2004.  However, levels of penta and octa in humans continue to rise, attributable in part to widespread use of deca which can break down into other forms.

In December 2009, the EPA outlined an Action Plan to reduce human exposure to PBDEs which recommended only a voluntary phase out of deca in lieu of a federal restriction.  California is among 11 states that have enacted bans on penta and octa.

However, even public health-advocacy organizations that support phase-out of all PBDEs, like Environmental Working Group, do not recommend that parents stop breastfeeding because of breastfeeding’s positive impact on other measures of infant well-being.

Perfluorinated Compounds

Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs) are synthetic polymers that find their way into food applications because they repel oils and water.  They are the key ingredient of grease/water-resistant coatings on non-stick cookware (e.g. Teflon®), pizza boxes, microwave popcorn, and fast-food wrappers.

The most studied PFCs are PFOA (perfluorooctanoate) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonate) which are known to persist seemingly indefinitely once released into the environment and consequently build up in the food web.  They also persist in human tissues: The half-life of PFOA and PFOS in human blood is roughly 4-5 years, according to a 2007 study of retirees of a PFC manufacturing facility.

Ninety-eight percent of the blood samples in the 2003-2004 NHANES survey contained PFOA and PFOS.  Breast milk contaminated with PFOA and PFOS was detected in 98% of Massachusetts women participating in a 2004 study.  Dietary intake of meat, fish and dairy products is thought to be a major route of exposure along with consumption of foods contaminated through contact with grease/water-resistant packaging (e.g. fast foods).

Non-stick cookware, when heated to high temperatures, has also been shown to release substances that might taint foods, according to tests performed by Environmental Working Group.

The list of potential health effects linked to PFCs in human and animals studies is long and includes cancers, high cholesterol, liver and developmental toxicity, thyroid hormone disruption, and infertility. No U.S. jurisdiction has yet limited the used of PFOA or PFOS in food contact substances.