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Flame retardants in breast milk – no risk to infants in Germany

24/2005, 19.07.2005

Breastfeeding is still the best source of food for infants

Joint press release of the Federal Environmental Agency and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment

Residues of flame retardants in breast milk do not constitute a risk for breastfed infants in Germany. This is confirmed by a study carried out by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) on behalf of the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA). In the study, which is part of the Action Programme Environment and Health (APUG), 128 milk samples from 89 mothers from across Germany were tested for their contents of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). The amount of flame retardants taken in during breastfeeding estimated from the data was tens of thousands of times lower for a four month-old baby than the dose identified in animal experiments at which no adverse reactions were observed. By way of comparison, levels identified in North America are around 10 to 30 times higher. UBA and BfR, therefore, agree that breastfeeding is still the best source of food for infants.  

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are fat soluble and persistent – this means that they are not readily degradable in the environment. As a consequence of these properties, they accumulate in the food chain and can be detected in blood and breast milk. Because of its high fat content, breast milk is an important indicator – so-called bio-indicator – for the total burden of the human organism with these chemical compounds. Up to now, only sporadic data were available from Germany. 

Since the 1970s PBDEs have been used as flame retardants in plastics in the electronics sector, in synthetic household fabrics and in upholstery foam.  They are now widespread in the environment. PBDEs encompass more than 200 single compounds and are used in three technical mixtures. Two of these PBDE mixtures, penta and octa-BDE have been banned across Europe since August 2004 because of the threat to the environment and as preventive protection for breastfed infants. The study succeeded for the first time in detecting the decabrom congener 209 in breast milk from Europe, the main component in the third mixture. Up to now, it had only been found in the blood of highly exposed workers. This mixture has not been banned so far and is used in the electronics sector.

The study shows that the PBDE levels in breast milk in Germany are in the lower range compared to other European countries. It could be shown that foods of animal origin are a major source of exposure. The mean PBDE level of 2.47 nanogram per gram (ng/g) milk fat in samples taken from 41 women on a mixed diet around two weeks after giving birth was significantly higher than that of 32 vegetarians of 1.65 ng/g milk fat. This should be a reason for analysing PBDE levels in various foods in future and for identifying those foods which contribute most to the body burden.  

The time spent in front of monitors (TV sets and computers contain flame retardants) and the mothers’ age were of no importance in the study.

A second milk sample was available from 35 mothers which was taken around three months after they gave birth. In contrast to findings available for dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls, whose levels steadily fall the longer women breastfeed, a three-month breastfeeding period, at least, still did not have any impact on the PBDE level in breast milk. The observation period was perhaps too short. By contrast, the number of children a woman has breastfed seems to be important. The more infants a mother has breastfed during her life, the lower the PBDE level.

In the case of BDE 209 neither diet nor the number of breastfeeding periods had a significant influence. It is likely that other exposure sources are relevant for these congeners which have yet to be identified.

The fact that flame retardants do not constitute a risk to infants in breast milk does not mean that nothing needs to be done. Quite the contrary, on precautionary grounds it is essential to control all persistent compounds which accumulate in organisms by means of environmental and health policy measures in order to reduce exposure further. One of the essential elements in this concept is the new chemicals legislation, REACH, being carried forward by the EU which aims to contribute to the examination of the hazard potential of around 30,000 chemical substances which are present in our everyday lives. The envisaged obligations may not be relaxed at all. 

The final report “Residues of retardants in breast milk in Germany with special consideration of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDSs)” can be accessed on the website of the Action Programme Environment and Health in German on in PDF format.

The contact person for this subject at the Federal Environmental Agency is Frank Hönerbach, Tel.: 0340-2103-2215,