Unwanted chemicals found in butter.

Recently a sample of butter revealed extremely high levels of a chemical known as a fire retardant. This revelation has called for better monitoring of the country’s food supply.


Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE)

In the sample of butter tested, levels of the chemical  polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) were found. This sample was 135 times higher than the average for nine other similarly tested samples. Researchers have indicated the chemical contamination seems to have come from the paper wrapper on the block of butter. The wrapping paper had PBDE levels 16 times greater than levels in the butter.

The contaminated samples were found during a routine testing of various foods. The research was conducted in an effort to understand the prevalence of PBDE  in the foods we eat.

PBDE Levels in Food

Researchers say the sample tested represented the worst known case of PBDE contamination in food reported in the country. However, Dr. A. Schecter the lead researcher suggests that nobody has been looking for the PBDEs or similar chemicals in the country’s food supply. It is hope this and other research studies will inspire the U.S. government to follow this more closely. There seems to be no vehicle in place for monitoring level of chemicals in our foods.

Critics of the study

A chemical industry spokesperson was critical of the research, which was published recently in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The spokesperson suggested that the research was invalid and not very scientific because the 10 blocks of butter all came from a single city.

Kathryn St John of the American Chemistry Council Director of Product stated in a written statement Flame retardants are everywhere. She goes on to demonstrate  PBDEs have been used since the 1970s in the manufacture of upholstered chairs, foam used in the cushions of couches, electronics, fabrics and in plastics.

PBDEs are stored in the body

Polybrominated diphenyl ether PBDEs are stored in the human body, and monitoring programs in North America, Asia, Europe and in the Arctic have all found traces of PBDEs in birds, fish and human breast milk. It will be fair to say that exposure of PBDEs are not fully understood, but studies in animals have linked PBDEs to infertility, developmental delays, thyroid toxicity and liver toxicity.

Safety concerns

Recent safety concerns  has led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin phasing out PBDE compounds penta-BDE and octa-BDE  for several years now. Manufacturers have agreed to stop using the compound deca-BDE in the next few years.

The newly published investigation included  hundreds of foods purchased at five Dallas supermarkets on two separate occasions , which included different brands of butter. In the highly contaminated sample of butter, levels of the deca-BDE component BDE-209 were 900 times higher than the average of the other nine samples tested.

Is food packaging adding to exposure?

Dr. Schecter said it is not clear if the contamination was an, one off, or represents a bigger problem. It does seem as if some foods we buy are contaminated with flame retardants, hopefully rare, but in some cases the levels are high. Dr. Kim Harley University of California of the  agrees and has said the research gives concerns that food packaging may be an unrecognized source of chemical contamination, especially in foods such as butter.

Dr. Harley has done her own PBDE research, which was published in January, and the findings suggest a link between high levels of BPDE and decreased fertility in women. Studies suggests that nearly  98% of Americans have some PBDEs in their blood, but Harley says how the chemicals got there is still unknown. However, she thinks the major culprits are foods and house dust.

PBDEs are soluble in fat

Because PBDEs are soluble in fat, Schecter said,  people who eat less animal products probably also have less exposure. It is known these chemicals accumulate in animal fat, so those who cut the fat of meat and salmon, and drink skimmed milk instead of whole milk may help reduce exposure.

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