Did the State of California Kill This Woman's Cat?
Photo credit: Alan Wong for the Daily Californian
Did living in California doom biophysical chemist Arlene Blum's cat, Midnight, to a premature death? Midnight's untimely demise was possibly due to toxic chemicals in her furniture, writes Blum in The Los Angeles Times. "In two years with hyperthyroid disease, Midnight went from a plump 14 pounds to a skeletal five," she adds. "A year ago, a veterinary epidemiologist found that Midnight's blood contained among the highest levels of PBDEs documented in animal research. That's when I learned that the chemicals in my cat came from my couch. And that my furniture is uniquely toxic because I live in California."
What are PBDEs?PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are fire retardants that have been commonly added to furniture and electronics since the 1980s. Widely used in polyurethane foam and other plastics, PBDEs are kissing cousins to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have been banned for nearly 30 years because they can cause immune suppression, endocrine disruption, behavioral problems, and cancer.Flame-retardant chemicals—which can migrate out of furniture into household dust, food, and our bodies—have been shown to be detrimental to reproduction and brain development, especially in children and fetuses. In fact, studies are being conducted to determine if PBDEs are responsible for increases in autism, hyperactivity, birth defects, infertility, and obesity in Americans, who have the highest PBDE levels in humans worldwide—American women, for instance, have 10 to 40 times the levels of PBDEs in their breast milk as do women in Europe or Asia.
A recent report from the Environmental Working Group showed that U.S. toddlers have, on average, levels of fire retardants in their bodies that are three times higher than those found in their mothers.
Although two forms of PBDEs known as Penta and Octa are no longer made in the United States because of health and safety concerns, you can still find them furniture and foam items made before they were phased out completely. A form known as Deca, however, banned in European electronics and some U.S. states, is still available on the market and widely used. Plus, a regulatory loophole allows Penta to cross U.S. borders in imported furniture.
PBDEs and catsCats are even more exposed to the scourge of PBDEs, and some may have levels 100 times greater than their humans, wrote Blum earlier in The Huffington Post, indicating an April 2007 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study that confirmed the link between PBDEs in dust and hyperthyroidism in cats. "Feline hyperthyroidism . . . was never reported [35 years ago, but] now it is very common," study co-author Linda Birnbaum, director of the EPA's National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory experimental toxicology division, told Environmental Science & Technology when the paper was first published.
Fire retardants in CaliforniaIn the United States, California has the most stringent fire-safety laws. Dust in California homes contain 10 times the PBDEs found in dust from other states and 200 times the amount in European homes, according to the Silent Spring Institute. "Californians have twice the level of this fire retardant in their blood as do people in other states," says Blum.
When San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Mark Leno sought to remove fire retardants from California furniture, while maintaining fire safety, his bill was shot down by the state Senate. Manufacturers of fire retardants spent millions of dollars lobbying to stop the legislation from going through. And it's about to get worse for Californians, Blum says:
More Californians may soon be sleeping in a cocoon of chemicals. Technical Bulletin 604, a proposed state regulation requiring comforters, mattress pads and pillows to resist an open flame, is expected to be enacted soon by the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation. Yet the state has not asked for any information on the health or environmental effects of the chemicals likely to be used.
Was Midnight the proverbial canary in the coal mine, wonders Blum. She ends with a plea to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop California from being the only state that makes flame-retardant bed coverings, pillows and furniture mandatory.
"It's too late for Midnight," she concludes, "but hopefully our governor will withstand chemical industry pressure and act to protect our cats and our children from unneeded toxic chemicals in our homes."
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