May 31, 2012 -- A common flame retardant is found in many popular foods, including fish and turkey, according to new research.
Researchers tested foods such as meats, fish, and peanut butter.
Fifteen of the 36 food samples tested had detectable levels of hexabromocyclododecane, or HBCD, says researcher Arnold Schecter, MD, MPH, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas.
HBCD is used in foams in thermal insulation, in electrical equipment, and consumer products. It is found in the environment and wildlife. People are exposed from products and dust in the home and workplace.
Some scientists are concerned that exposure could be related to developmental effects, hormonal interference, and alterations in the immune and reproductive systems.
"The levels we found are lower than what the government agencies currently think are dangerous," Schecter tells WebMD. "But those levels were determined one chemical at a time."
He and others are discovering in their research that we're exposed to multiple chemicals at the same time.
The industry took exception to the finding.
"Based on these findings, the real story is that HBCD was not detected in the majority of the samples, and in those where it was, it was well below levels where one might see adverse health effects," says Bryan Goodman, a spokesperson for the North American Flame Retardant Alliance of the American Chemistry Council.
The study is published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
HBCD in Foods: Study Details
The researchers bought the foods from Dallas supermarkets in 2009 and 2010. They tested all 36 samples for HBCD.
Fifteen of the 36 samples, or 42%, had detectable levels of HBCDs. Some of these 15 samples were the same foods, but from different stores.
The foods with detectable levels include:
- Sardines in water
- Smoked turkey sausages (three samples)
- Fresh salmon (two different samples)
- Sardines in olive oil (two samples)
- Fresh catfish (three samples)
- Fresh deli-sliced turkey (one of three)
- Fresh deli-sliced ham (one of two)
- Fresh tilapia (one of three)
- Chili with beans (one of three)
Twenty-one other samples tested that did not have detectable HBCD levels included:
- Creamy peanut butter (three samples)
- Chili with beans (two of three samples)
- Bacon (three samples)
- Fresh deli-sliced beef (three samples)
- Fresh deli-sliced turkey (two of three samples)
- Fresh deli-sliced chicken (two samples)
- Fresh tilapia (two of three samples)
- Fish sticks (three samples)
- Fresh deli-sliced ham (one of two)
Flame Retardants in Foods: Discussion
HBCD is viewed as a ''persistent organic pollutant," according to Schecter. That is because it accumulates, travels long distances, and stays in the environment for a long time.
It is often found in fatty foods such as high-fat meats and some fish.
It is on the European Chemicals Agency candidate list of substances of ''very high concern," he says. The U.S. EPA has developed an action plan for the chemical. It is considering adding it to the list of ''chemicals of concern."
"For HBCD, we really have very limited measurements," says Linda S. Birnbaum, PhD, a study co-researcher and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program.
"These are the first and only measurements of the three types of HBCDs in the U.S. food supply," she says. The researchers measured alpha, beta and gamma forms.
"The levels are still very low," she says of their findings. "But this is a very small study looking at a limited number of foods.''
"We really don't know how broadly representative this might be of American foods in general. They are persistent chemicals. They are going to last in our bodies a long time."
Flame Retardants in Foods: Environmentalists' View
Environmentalists have expressed concern about HBCD for at least a decade, says Sonya Lunder, MPH, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group.
"I think this [study] is important," she says.
The EPA action plan has been lagging, she says. The accumulation of environmental chemicals is a growing concern, she says.
While the new study focuses just on HBCDs, it's the mixture of complex chemicals people are exposed to that is of even greater concern, she says. "Whether this chemical alone or in combination with others is enough to make us sick is a complicated question," she says.
"Overall, reducing our production and use of persistent and toxic chemicals has got to be the goal," she tells WebMD.
Flame Retardants in Foods: Industry Response
In a statement, Goodman of the American Chemistry Council also says that the authors note that human exposure from the foods that were studied is well below critical-effect levels.
The results, he adds, "should not pose a concern for human health."
The study results, he tells WebMD, don't focus on what he calls the big picture -- that the chemicals were found in less than half of the samples.
Flame Retardants In Foods: Advice
For now, says Schecter, the take-home advice is an old message. "I think the lesson is what we've been saying in public health for a long time," he says. "More fruits and vegetables are going to be good for most of us. Animal fats should be eaten less than the average American eats them."