Cats as Canaries in EPA Contamination Study


Cross-posted on Huffington Post

The EPA has released a
study that may change the cleaning habits of some American households. The study, which focused on thyroid damage in house cats caused by the flame retardant chemical polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) introduced into American homes nearly thirty years ago, concludes that the chemical enters the cats' systems through house dust. The danger for humans? The chemical, which was phased out of production in 2004, is still present in American homes via treated foam insulation, plastics products, furniture, electronics, carpet pads and, most importantly, in house dust that comes into contact with the treated materials:
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are an important group of flame retardants. They are used worldwide in a variety of consumer goods, including household products. Over the last 20 years, the concentrations of PBDEs have rapidly increased in the environment and in humans. [snip] Since many pet cats spend the majority of their lives indoors and grooming, and since household dust often contains relatively high levels of PBDEs, we hypothesized that development of feline hyperthyroidism could, in some manner, be related to increasing exposure to PBDEs. [snip] Thus, cats may be useful sentinels for studying potential endocrine health outcomes re-lated to chronic low-level PBDE exposure. Link

The EPA's Director of Experimental Toxicology, Linda Birnbaum, a co-author of the study, went on to say that "this could be a warning sign for how young children could get exposed to the chemical."

A review of the report in today's Environmental Science and Technology concluded:

The paper makes a convincing case that cats can be "a useful sentinel species for both [human] exposure to PBDEs and examination of endocrine disruption," notes Tom Webster, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health's department of environmental health. Link.

"I don't think we know about (human) health yet, but I don't like the sound of this," said Webster. "Levels in people are going up." Link.

"Because the cat study is so preliminary," Birnbaum said, "people shouldn't overreact and sell their furniture or rid themselves of carpets." However, she said she makes sure to wash her grandchildren's blankets more frequently and checks on flame retardant use when buying furniture. Link.

This is an unfortunate potential validation for the times we have been told of the necessity for the dreaded chores of dusting, cleaning and laundry. If you have cats, children or if you happen to breathe the air yourself, best practice may be to keep your house, furniture, carpets and fabrics as free of dust as possible until more tests can be done and to check the type of flame retardant used (or not used) when purchasing new goods.