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BgVV launches study on the incidence of brominated flame retardants in human breast milk

01/2002, 22.01.2002

Pregnant vegetarians sought as participants

Flame retardants reduce the flammability of combustible substances. They are mainly used in the electronics industry, in wood and wood materials, plastics and textiles. They encompass a wide range of chemical compounds. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) rank amongst the flame retardants which are widely found in electronic products like TV sets or computers. They are stable, fat-soluble compounds which are not readily degradable and accumulate in the environment. These substances have been detected in air, soil, water, fish, meat, milk and eggs. These flame retardants are not very toxic; they do not modify the genotype nor are they classified as carcinogenic. Even in the event of acute contact they do not cause any noticeable symptoms. However, it is unclear whether permanent contact with PBDEs could impact on human health.

Up to now, only limited reliable data have been available in Germany about the burden of the population with these flame retardants. So far, it has not been definitively established either by what routes humans take up PBDEs - through food or through general contact with the environment. In Swedish studies polybrominated diphenyl ethers were detected in numerous human breast milk samples. BgVV is, therefore, launching a study aiming to supply up-to-date German data on the extent to which PBDEs are present in human breast milk. This study should also help to clarify how these substances reach the human body, whether a diet without any animal products can improve the situation or whether the PBDE levels reflect general environmental contamination irrespective of eating habits.

To this end, the PBDE levels in the milk samples of breastfeeding mothers, who have been vegetarian or vegan for some time, are to be compared with milk samples from mothers who eat foods both of animal and plant origin. The study will be funded by BgVV and the Action Programme Environment and Health and will probably run for about two years.

Breast milk is the best food for infants. Backed by international organizations, the BgVV National Committee for the Promotion of Breastfeeding recommends to mothers that they exclusively breastfeed their infants in the first six months and that breastfeeding be continued even after the introduction of weaning foods. In order to protect the health of infants, the National Committee for the Promotion of Breastfeeding calls, in principle, for foreign substances in breast milk to be minimised as far as possible through suitable measures. That is another reason why the data to be evaluated in this study are important. They will make possible an exact assessment of the levels of PBDEs taken up by the breastfed infant from breast milk. Findings up to now would seem to indicate that the uptake of these substances does not constitute a threat to the infant. But only when knowledge is available about the actual burden situation of breastfed infants, can a real assessment be undertaken of whether there is a potential threat to infants or whether this can be safely ruled out.

BgVV is seeking the support of mothers-to-be in the Berlin area for this study. In order to establish the extent to which food influences the level of flame retardants in breast milk, BgVV is looking in particular for vegan or vegetarian mothers-to-be who live in the Berlin area who would like to take part in the study and are willing to make breast milk available for the planned tests.

More detailed information can be obtained from the BgVV Press and Public Relations Office (Tel. 01888-412-4300) or by email from


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