Friday, June 1, 2012

Peanut butter & fire retardant sandwich?

What is your go-to quick lunch option for you or your kids?  For most parents, it would be fair to say, that it is either a peanut butter sandwich or maybe a turkey or cold cut sandwich. 

Earlier today, before I sat down to read this new study on flame retardant exposure, my son had refused to eat his barley risotto and I had to give him my quick “go - to” lunch:  an (organic) peanut butter sandwich!

Bad news:    a new study  by the University of Texas sampled common foods found in grocery stores in Dallas,  and found that nearly half of the sampled peanut butter and cold cuts, (as well as turkey, fish, beef and other fatty foods), contained traces of a flame retardant commonly used in the foam thermal insulation of building walls.   WHY ARE THERE FLAME RETARDANTS IN OUR CHILDREN’S (and our!) FOOD?????

  • The specific flame retardant that was uncovered, hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD),  is a type of brominated flame retardant used in thermal insulation in buildings and in electric equipment.
  • According to the  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,  “HBCD is highly toxic to aquatic organisms. It also presents human health concerns based on animal test results indicating potential reproductive, developmental and neurological effects.
  • By late 2012 the EPA is considering adding HBCD to their “Concern List of Chemicals”
  • It has been found in umbilical cord blood and breast milk, which is especially worrisome since, as is the case with all chemicals of concern, unborn children and very young children are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals.


HBCD  is primarily used in thermal  insulation in buildings, so how did it get into our peanut butter?

 Like most flame retardants, they probably made their way into the food chain (and into our bodies) via the air, water and soil.  They migrate out of the products that have the flame retardants (ie:  the thermal insulation) and into dust.  We either breath in  the dust or it  lands on -for example- peanut crops or on the food that livestock is grazing on. ..

Unfortunately, the study did not specify which particular brands were tested, but all were "conventional" brands and not brands that market themselves as organic.  However, considering that the contamination could be coming from dust or water, the bad news is that organic options could potentially also be contaminated :-(  Not all the foods tested had traces of the chemicals, though.


A spokesperson for the North American Flame Retardant Alliance of the American Chemistry Council told WebMD that it should be noted that not all of the tested items had HBCD, and if it was found in the product, it contained levels much lower than levels reported to show negative health effects.

The study’s author recognizes that  HBCD  was, indeed, found in very small quantities.  However, they did add that “small quantities of HBCDs can add up to a much more significant chemical presence over time. Once in the human body, the same fat-loving disposition that attracted the chemical to fatty foods like meat and nuts can help it bind to human fat, where it can stick around for years.”   Also of concern?  Babies usually have higher fat levels than adults which makes them extra attractive for these chemicals.

Health concerns of HBCD exposure include alterations in immune and reproductive systems, neurotoxic effects, and endocrine disruption

While this study should not mean we have to cut peanut butter, among other foods, out of our diets, it does mean we should take any action possible to reduce our exposure to flame retardants. 


Unfortunately flame retardants like HBCD binds itself to dust and makes it way not only into our food but also into our homes.  In fact, tests have shown that the levels found in our homes are often higher than what is recorded in food sources. 

The good news is that there a couple of easy, (many free!) things you can do at home to to help reduce the amount of flame retardant contamination in your household dust:

  1. Dust and clean regularly.  Pay close attention to your children’s toys (especially if they like to place them in their mouth!)
  2. Invest in a vacuum with an HEPA filter and vacuum frequently (ok maybe not all are free!)
  3. Take your shoes off when coming indoors so as to avoid bring in contaminated soil or dust from outdoors.
  4. Wash you and your munchkin’s hands frequently (especially if you have babies that are crawling around the house.  Since contaminated dust settles on the floor, crawling babies are touching this dust all day and most definitely placing their hands in their mouth!)
  5. Open your windows daily, even if only for a short period, to allow the air indoors to circulate. 
  6. Look for products that do not contain flame retardants.  For more on this read our blog post "
  7. Urge your local Congressman or woman  to retire the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act and replace it with the Safe Chemical Act which is currently awaiting approval at the Senate.  The Environmental Working Group has a great page which showcases easy things you can do to support this super important piece of legislature  

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