The Interior Imperative

A record $35 billion budget deficit and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger overshadowed what will likely prove a more lasting legacy of 2003: California is the first state to ban a common breed of toxic household chemicals known as PBDEs. The result of a novel coalition of scientists, activists, and legislators, the ban has led many to hope it presages a revolution in American public health.
Toxic chemicals commonly used in household and workplace objects from personal computers to sofa cushions are turning up in samples of human blood, urine, and breast milk at alarming levels. Although the science connecting these chemicals with specific health threats is still emerging, Californians are taking action now to prevent further exposure to toxins in everyday objects.
California State Assembly Majority Leader Wilma Chan (D-Alameda) sponsored Assembly Bill 302, a statewide ban on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a group of fire-inhibiting chemicals frequently used in the plastics of computers and electronics and in upholstery.
The family of brominated flame retardants—known to some scientists as “son of PCBs” for their similarity to these highly toxic and environmentally persistent chemicals banned in the United States since 1976—are known neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors. A recent Swedish study found that PBDE levels in breast milk are 40 times higher than they were in 1970, and amounts of PBDE in North American breast milk are 40 times higher than Swedish samples. Breast tissue from San Francisco Bay Area women shows some of the highest levels of PBDE yet found worldwide.
Studies that look at samples of human body tissue or fluids use biological monitoring, or biomonitoring, techniques to measure the kinds and amounts of pollutants we carry around in our bodies, known as our “body burden.” By linking toxics exposure to the body burden of specific populations, biomonitoring studies inform the efforts of scientists, activists, and policymakers.
According to Chan, it’s about time. “We’re seeing a historic shift in which the environmental community and the healthcare community are coming together around issues of environmental health,” says Chan’s chief of staff Rachel Richman.
AB 302 bans two pervasive types of PBDEs referred to as penta and octa. The ban goes into effect in January 2008. The start date was part of a deal designed to ease the transition for businesses. Negotiators exempted a third variety of PBDE, known as deca, and Governor Gray Davis signed the ban in August with scant opposition.
In September 2002, Chan, chair of a committee on children’s health, held a joint hearing with the Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials to discuss the dangers environmental pollutants pose to children. The hearing, which pulled together experts from a variety of backgrounds, produced recommendations that included the phase-out of toxins identified in samples of breast milk.
Why focus on breast milk? Although urine and blood are also good markers for many of the toxins found in our bodies, breast milk offers unique advantages in that it contains fat cells. Many foreign chemicals, such as PBDEs are thought to be lipophilic, meaning that they accumulate in fat cells.
PBDEs have been shown to disrupt nervous system development and thyroid hormone balance, which can contribute to learning disabilities and motor skill deficits. A report issued by Chan’s office notes that mothers carrying PBDEs in their systems may pass them on to their babies in utero.
After Chan’s committee linked children’s health with environmental toxins, PBDEs fell directly into California’s legislative crosshairs.
Although it may seem obvious that chemicals like PBDE represent a threat worthy of governmental regulation, California’s brominated flame retardant ban represents a shift in thinking that is just beginning to gain momentum in the United States. The ban is an example of the “precautionary principle” in action. (See Q&A, page 38.) The precautionary principle seeks to eliminate unnecessary health and environmental risks by finding alternatives to potentially dangerous practices and products.
By acting quickly on available scientific data, legislators are offering an alternative to the model that finally outlawed PCBs almost 30 years ago. It took nearly half a century and hundreds of studies documenting extensive exposure and damage to human health before Congress banned the chemical.
Chemical manufacturers critical of the PBDE ban have noted that brominated flame retardants are used to save lives by preventing fires, and elimination of the chemicals could present a new health risk in itself. But with other fire-retardant chemicals available, the momentum was clearly against PBDEs. In a sign of modern industry’s willingness to adapt, several manufacturers—including Swedish furniture giant Ikea and computer companies Dell, Apple, and Hewlett-Packard—have already begun to switch to PBDE-free products.
Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, feels that by exempting deca-BDE from the legislation, the ban does not go far enough. According to Williams, studies released as recently as August 2003 show that deca—a major component of PBDEs found in household dust—degrades easily in the presence of light to its penta and octa cousins. Deca’s tendency to degrade makes it difficult to detect in biomonitoring studies, but, she maintains, it is no less of a health threat. “The science on this issue,” says Williams, “is literally a moving target.”
As biomonitoring emerges as a powerful new scientific tool, health and environmental advocates are seeking additional studies to guide policymakers. San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund and Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute located near Bolinas, have teamed up with State Senator Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) to sponsor Senate Bill 689, the Healthy Californians Biomonitoring Project.
If adopted, the bill would create a multi-constituency advisory committee of experts that would coordinate biomonitoring efforts throughout the state. The hope is that these investigations will eventually inform a broad range of policy decisions, from zoning laws to pesticide use.
The Breast Cancer Fund’s Janet Nudelman sees the bill as an opportunity. Breast cancer, says Nudelman, “has been increasing exponentially over the last 40 years or so, and no one knows why.” Concomitant to that rise, she notes, is the massive increase in everyday use of synthetic chemicals, few of which have been tested for effects on human health.
In light of these parallel rises and the continued discovery of chemicals like PBDEs in breast milk, says Nudelman, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make a connection between environmental toxins and breast cancer.”
The Healthy Californians biomonitoring bill has drawn critics who fear that monitoring breast milk may scare women away from breastfeeding. Supporters are quick to point out that part of the monitoring program includes education on the benefits of breastfeeding: Despite the toxins in our bodies, breast milk remains the best food for babies, and breastfeeding, for reasons not yet understood, reduces the risk of breast cancer. Breast milk, says Commonweal’s Sharyle Patton, is simply “an indicator of what the community is exposed to and how exposed we all are.”
Other criticisms of the bill take a much broader stroke, questioning whether money spent on medical research that offers no therapeutic value would better be spent on treating existing cancer patients. The short answer is “No,” says California Senate Committee on Health and Human Services consultant Nicole Vasquez. “Research is critical to prevent rising numbers” of cancer incidence, she said.
When introduced last February, SB 689 called for a one-cent per pack tax increase on cigarettes to pay for the biomonitoring studies. The bill was suspended after the cigarette tax plan fell through. Now, with a new financing plan in place, Nudelman is optimistic that the bill will get out of the Appropriations Committee by the January 31, 2004 deadline and be signed by the governor in October 2005.
Biomonitoring projects may soon receive assistance from the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2001, California’s Department of Health Services received funding from CDC to conduct a Biomonitoring Planning Project. The project assessed the needs of the state to expand and support the laboratory infrastructure. With the planning phase complete, the state has applied for $1 million in CDC funds per laboratory per year for up to five years.
As announcement of the grant recipients—initially expected by mid-September—has been delayed, biomonitoring advocates are keeping their fingers crossed.

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