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Mother says policies give chemicals more rights than babies

As a mother nursing her first child, Angie Petro wanted to protect the baby from toxins, but soon found that even her milk might contain polybromated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) used as flame retardants in many products.

Angie Petro
Angie Petro
“Chemicals have more rights than children. They are put into use before they have been proven to be safe.  PBDEs have been used for nearly 30 years,” she said at a workshop on environmental issues during the recent Eastern Washington Legislative Conference, sponsored by the Interfaith Council and ecumenical partners.

It can be depressing to learn about chemicals in the environment, in our food chain and in our bodies,” said Angie, who is on the board of People for Environmental Action for Children’s Health (PEACH).

Five years ago, she listened to a talk about dioxins and PBDEs at a La Leche League group.

“I breast fed religiously.  I was gung-ho about that and organic food, but I learned that I had PBDEs and dioxins in my breast milk, accumulated over my life.  I was overwhelmed with anger and determined to do something about it.  I have been an activist since,” she said.

PEACH has funding from the state legislature to provide education on the presence of PBDEs.

In the human body, these chemicals are stored in fatty tissues, absorbed from mattresses, furniture, electronics, plastics, automobiles, computers and other items, Angie said.  They leak into the environment—the soil, water and air—and are also in the bodies of fish and animals that people eat.

“It’s critical to ban their use.  Studies find that at low levels they impair memory, learning and behavior in laboratory animals.  They affect thyroid hormones and other bodily functions, putting fetuses, infants and young children at risk,” Angie said.

They persist in the environment, just as such chemicals as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury and dioxins are still in the environment 30 years after they were banned, she added.

Angie advocates safer, cost-effective alternatives that meet flammability standards, choices that are available to consumers. 

“We can use our purchasing power to tell industry what we want and what we don’t want.  We can ask before buying electronics if the product has PBDEs in it,” she said.

Other means she recommended for keeping buildings, vehicles and products safe from fires and chemicals include the following:
• Wool, cotton and leather are naturally flame retardant.
• Plastics containing sulfur, preceramic polymers and aramid blends are also flame-retardant.
• Other safer flame-retardant chemicals are also available.

In addition, she hopes that the state legislature will consider a ban on use of PBDEs, modeled on bans established in Europe and in California.

Last year, Governor Gary Locke asked the Department of Ecology to develop a phase-out plan for penta-, octa- and deca-PBDEs.  The DOE drafted legislation in October to ban the sale of new products containing penta- and octa-PBDEs by 2006 and new consumer electronics products and certain textiles containing deca-PBDE by the end of 2008.

“In countries that have phased it out, levels have declined rapidly,” Angie said.

A bill that would ban the manufacture and sale of products containing PBDEs by July 2006 did not reach the Senate floor for a vote by the March 16 deadline. 

There are plans to attach the recommendation to ban PBDEs to the budget, said Alice Woldt, advocacy organizer for the Washington Association of Churches, in a follow-up interview.

That bill also provides for the Department of Ecology to study other actions to address PBDE contamination and require state agencies to lead by example, purchasing PBDE-free products.

For information, call 455-2552.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © April 2005