Benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks, despite the presence of toxic flame retardants in Puget Sound mothers' breast milk. Fetuses are already exposed to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the womb, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG). Breastfeeding may even help counteract effects of this exposure.

How do PBDEs wind up in our bodies? Scientists haven't figured this out yet. But they do know we're not alone. From polar bears to peregrine falcons, from mussels to moose, PBDEs have spread around the globe.

Household dust may be a key exposure route, says EWG, particularly for children. Rob Duff of the Washington State Department of Health says that diet, especially fish, is a likely major contributor. One thing everyone agrees on: PBDEs surround us. TVs, computers, carpeting, furniture and fabrics contain flame retardants. "We want people to be aware of PBDEs, but we want people to keep eating fish," Duff says. "We want people to make smart choices."

Why do PBDEs matter? Laboratory tests indicate that exposure during critical growth periods may affect behavior, learning, motor skills, memory and hearing. Certainly, PBDEs have helped save lives from fire, but there are alternatives. New product designs and less flammable materials reduce the need for flame retardants.

There's also promising news. In 1997, after Sweden phased out PBDEs, contamination levels in Swedish mothers' milk began decreasing after having increased for more than 20 years. Washington State Governor Locke has directed the Department of Ecology and the Department of Health to develop a plan to reduce threats posed by persistent, toxic pollution, including PBDEs. An advisory committee is grappling with the details right now.

In the meantime, here's what you can do:

  • Continue breastfeeding. "There is broad consensus among knowledgeable professionals that breastfeeding remains the healthiest option despite environmental pollution," says MaryAnn O'Hara, Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Washington.
  • Continue eating fish. It's good for you. To minimize exposure to contaminants, visit; click on "Fish Consumption Advisories" and scroll down to "Cooking and Cleaning Fish."
  • Replace or reupholster furniture, automobile seats and carpeting that have exposed foam or foam padding. Clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum.
  • Support companies that are taking steps to make PBDE-free products available, including IKEA, Apple, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Panasonic, Motorola and Sony.
  • If you need an extra push to keep your house clean, remember this: The less dust there is for your baby to play in, the better.
  • Read the draft action plan at You may submit comments until Oct. 15, 2004.
  • Stay informed: www.toxic,,
"Mothers shouldn't shy away from breastfeeding in any way, because it's still the healthiest thing for your child," says Ivy Sager-Rosenthal, People for Puget Sound's Policy Associate. "But it should give us pause as to what we're putting out into the environment. The decision to go forward with phasing these chemicals out is good news."

Jennifer Youngman is a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in environmental and outdoor recreation subjects

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