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There May Be Flame Retardants In Your Food

You may be less likely to catch on fire, but you’re certainly a lot less healthy because you’re eating them. Also, just kidding about your likelihood of catching fire–that remains the same.

There May Be Flame Retardants In Your Food
Yusaf Yilmaz/Shutterstock

You may already know that there are nasty ingredients in your food–things like BPA (a hormone disruptor), BADGE (thought to turn stem cells into fat cells), and pesticides. Here’s one more thing to add to the list: toxic flame retardants.

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A study published this week in Environmental Health Perspectives reveals that the popular flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), used in electrical equipment and polystyrene foams found in thermal insulation, is present in measurable levels in foods sampled from Dallas, Texas supermarkets. Chances are, that means HBCD can be found in foods near you.

It’s not as if researchers didn’t already realize that we come in contact with HBCD; past studies have investigated the substance in the environment, human milk, animal tissue, human serum, and dust. But this is the first time HBCD has been examined in our food supply.

In the recent EHP study, researchers took 36 food samples from Dallas-area supermarkets, including fish, poultry, beef, and peanut butter (all fat-rich foods, because HBCD likes to bind with lipids). The result: 15 of the samples contained detectable amounts of HBCD.

The researchers aren’t sure why some of the samples contained more HBCD than others. It’s possible that food handling, sources, ingredients, packaging, and animal husbandry practices all factor in.

Brominated flame retardants aren’t all bad–they can be extremely useful in reducing the flammability of certain products. But they come with nasty side effects for humans. HBCD in particular is associated with changes in the immune and reproductive systems, neurotoxicity, and endocrine disruption. It’s on the European Chemicals Agency’s candidate list of substances of very high concern, and the U.S. EPA is considering the addition of HBCD to its own “chemicals of concern” list. Nobody should be ingesting this stuff.

More research needs to be done before we can conclusively say that HBCD is running rampant in the U.S. food supply (and in amounts that can actually hurt us). But the authors of the recent study write: “The findings of HBCD in food…suggest that contamination of the U.S. food supply is currently occurring.”

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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