NOAA Report Calls Flame Retardants Concern to U.S. Coastal Ecosystems

Health Care Concerns Also Noted

April 1, 2009

Sites were PBDEs were found in 2006-2008 survey.

National Distribution of 200X PBDE tissue concentration in parts per billion lipid weight (where 200X = between 2004 and 2007). Categories low (green dot), Medium (yellow dot), High (red dot) were determined by cluster analysis.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

NOAA scientists, in a first-of-its-kind report issued today, state that Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), chemicals commonly used in commercial goods as flame retardants since the 1970s, are found in all United States coastal waters and the Great Lakes, with elevated levels near urban and industrial centers. 

The new findings are in contrast to analysis of samples as far back as 1996 that identified PBDEs in only a limited number of sites around the nation.

Based on data from NOAA’s Mussel Watch Program, which has been monitoring coastal water contaminants for 24 years, the nationwide survey found that New York’s Hudson Raritan Estuary had the highest overall concentrations of PBDEs, both in sediments and shellfish. Individual sites with the highest PBDE measurements were found in shellfish taken from Anaheim Bay, Calif., and four sites in the Hudson Raritan Estuary. 

Watersheds that include the Southern California Bight, Puget Sound, the central and eastern Gulf of Mexico off the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. coast, and Lake Michigan waters near Chicago and Gary, Ind. also were found to have high PBDE concentrations.

Sites where PBDEs were found in 1996 survey.

National Distribution of 1996 PBDE tissue concentration in parts per billion lipid weight. Categories low (green dot), Medium (yellow dot), High (red dot) were determined by cluster analysis.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

“This is a wake-up call for Americans concerned about the health of our coastal waters and their personal health,” said John H. Dunnigan, NOAA assistant administrator of the National Ocean Service. “Scientific evidence strongly documents that these contaminants impact the food web and action is needed to reduce the threats posed to aquatic resources and human health.”

PBDEs are man-made toxic chemicals used as flame retardants in a wide array of consumer products, including building materials, electronics, furnishings, motor vehicles, plastics, polyurethane foams and textiles since the 1970s. A growing body of research points to evidence that exposure to PBDEs may produce detrimental health effects in animals, including humans. Toxicological studies indicate that liver, thyroid and neurobehavioral development may be impaired by exposure to PBDEs. They are known to pass from mother to infant in breast milk.

Similar in chemical structure to polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, they have raised concerns among scientists and regulators that their impacts on human health will prove comparable. PBDE production has been banned in a number of European and Asian countries. In the U.S., production of most PBDE mixtures has been voluntarily discontinued.

The NOAA Mussel Watch survey found that the highest concentrations of PBDEs in the U.S. coastal zone were measured at industrial and urban locations. Still, the chemicals have been detected in remote places far from major sources, providing evidence of atmospheric transport. Significant sources of PBDEs introduction into the environment include runoff and municipal waste incineration and sewage outflows. Other pathways include leaching from aging consumer products, land application of sewage sludge as bio-solids, industrial discharges and accidental spills.

NOAA and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project have recently held meetings with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the California State Water Resources Control Board to discuss water quality monitoring of emerging contaminants. NOAA’s research and monitoring information found in this report will be used by relevant resource managers to better understand, assess and address the threats from PBDEs. 

NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources.