Are flame retardants the secret ingredient in your home-cooked meals?

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A new study has found that brominated flame retardants are present in black thermo cups and kitchen utensils bought in Europe. These types of chemicals have been linked to a number of adverse health effects in humans and animals including cancer.

In Europe, the recycling of electronic waste is strictly regulated under EU law as it often contains brominated flame retardants. This recycled waste is not allowed to be used in a number of consumer products, including food contact articles.  These chemicals were recently found in children’s toys, video tapes and other household products suggesting that the flow of recycled plastics from electronic waste is not as well regulated as it is meant to be. Concern over the presence of these chemicals in food contact products led to this study being carried out.

A total of thirty products were bought from five EU countries-Czech Republic, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and Slovakia. The products included thermo cups (known as travel mugs in the US) and kitchen utensils such as spoons, stirring utensils and an oil funnel.

The study focused on black plastic items as they have a greater chance of containing flame retardants. This is because recycled electronic waste is usually a brownish color, and so black pigments are added to products containing this recycled material for aesthetic purposes. One red and one green thermo cup were also included in the study for comparison, and these were not found to contain brominated chemicals.

Example of black thermo cup and oil funnel similar to those tested in the study

Example of black thermo cup and oil funnel similar to those tested in the study

Brominated flame retardants were present in about 40 % of the samples tested, and Sweden was the only country that did not have a contaminated product. The authors concluded that the presence of these chemicals could be explained by two scenarios: (1) accidental contamination or (2) intentional use of waste electronics to make a cheaper product.

DecaBDE was found to be the most common flame retardant present in the studied products. DecaBDE can persist in the environment, and animal studies have shown that it may cause cancer and adverse effects on brain function. It can also be broken down into by-products that are more toxic and more likely to accumulate in the body.

DecaBDE was phased out of electrical and electronic products in the EU in 2008, and a ban on this chemical is currently being reviewed. A voluntarily phase-out of this chemical by the three main producers/importers in the US began in 2010 with all sales to end by December 31st, 2013. However, the phase-out or restriction of flame retardants does not always apply to recycled products. Therefore chemicals may still be present in the recycling system, and can end up in new consumer products as shown by this study.

The researchers also found the flame retardant TBBPA in some of the products tested, and the health concerns of this chemical were discussed in a recent blog post.

Professor Miriam Diamond from University of Toronto with her kitchen utensils that were found to contain brominated flame retardantsAll rights reserved

Professor Miriam Diamond from University of Toronto with her kitchen utensils that were found to contain brominated flame retardants
All rights reserved

A separate study found that brominated flame retardants were present in kitchen utensils in Canada, which shows that this is not just an EU problem. To our knowledge no studies of this kind have been published about food contact articles in the US.

Although these findings are concerning, the health risks of brominated flame retardants in these types of products are unknown. The ability of these chemicals to move out of these products and into our food or drink needs to be tested. As thermo cups contain hot drinks, these chemicals are expected to be able to migrate out due to the high temperature of the liquid. Additionally, the plastic part of the cup, which was found to contain these chemicals, is in direct contact with a person’s mouth which may expose them to these chemicals. It is important that more studies like this are carried out to determine how widespread this problem really is.

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