Toxic Dust Bunnies: Environmental Health, Safety Threats from PBDEs

Part 2 – by Nena Baker, author, The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being (North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

"Thirty years ago, about the time that PBDEs were introduced, veterinarians began noticing an uptick in feline hyperthyroidism, the most common endocrine disorder in cats.

It causes rapid weight loss and leads to secondary problems with the heart and digestive system, greatly diminishing an animal’s quality of life. Notably, the disease is associated with cats who live indoors. Birnbaum and her research team wondered: Could the epidemic of thyroid disease in cats be associated with PBDEs in house dust?

Their 2007 pilot study showed the PBDE exposures in older cats with hyperthyroidism were three times higher than the levels in younger cats without it. Birnbaum told me that more studies are needed to pin down a correlation between PBDEs and feline hyperthyroidism, but that it makes sense to study chronic PBDE exposure in cats because they share the same environment with humans. Moreover, as the study notes, cats and humans are the only mammals that have a high incidence of hyperthyroidism.

With some scientists describing PBDEs as the “PCBs of the 21st century,” the makers of PBDEs voluntarily ceased making two of the three commercial mixtures of these flame retardants at the end of 2004. But the most widely produced PBDE – commonly known as “Deca” – continues to be manufactured for use primarily in electronics.  Three states – Washington, Maine and Oregon – have passed Deca bans, and other states are considering them.

On September 29, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that PBDEs are among six chemicals the EPA has targeted for priority review and possible regulation. But because of the way all types of PBDEs were used in big-ticket items that consumers keep for years and years, these toxic chemicals will continue to build up in the dust of homes and offices for the foreseeable future.

So, to minimize toxic dust bunnies in my own home:

* I vacuum at least twice a week using a machine with a high-quality filter.

* I also recommend avoiding contact with crumbling old foam from carpet padding, old mattress pads and stuffed furniture.

* If you can’t replace the items, tightly tape over the tears or rips.

* Isolate an area when replacing old carpet padding so you don’t spread the dust.

* When shopping, look for PBDE-free electronics and furniture.

PBDEs should not be in mattresses, couches and other foam products produced in 2005 or later. However, they are still put into some new electronics. If you’re not sure if a product contains PBDEs, contact the manufacturer and ask.

Don't miss Part I of this article. For more information, read The Body Toxic by Nena Baker.

4 Responses to Toxic Dust Bunnies: Environmental Health, Safety Threats from PBDEs

  1. Mindful Momma October 8, 2009 at 11:25 am #

    Great article – thank you for the tips on vacuuming and dealing with old carpet! What is your take on the flame retardants used in new furniture and mattresses today? Are they safe?

  2. Nena Baker October 8, 2009 at 2:39 pm #

    Great question. The science, at this point, is inconclusive about the safety of the alternative flame retardant chemicals now used in furniture and mattresses. What is known for sure is that they are showing up in house dust and in the tissue of dolphins and porpoises, which certainly raises safety concerns. The best choice for consumers is to buy upholstered furniture and mattresses made from materials that are inherently flame retardant, such as wool.

  3. Sunshine Natural Health November 12, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    Wow. Better buy a dyson, lol. I just bought one for this very reason, actually. It is insane how much dust accumulates in just a few months. We are now vacuuming 3 times a week and stuff is always coming off the floors. Don’t forget to do your bed people!
    Seriously. We vacuumed our bed and it had a decent amount of what I assume was dead dust bunny skin. Enough to warrant vaccuming it at least once a month if not once a week.

  4. Diane MacEachern November 13, 2012 at 5:28 am #

    Actually, I’d like to get one of those vacuum cleaners that’s specially made to vacuum up pet hair!

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