They were originally designed for a worthy cause. Flame retardants would stop kids from burning up in their pajamas, or being asphyxiated when plastics burned. So manufacturers put the chemicals in almost everything, from computers to TVs to rugs to foam cushions. Problem is, the cure may turn out to be worse than the disease. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are showing up in startling high levels in our bodies. A 2003 study by the Environmental Working Group discovered astonishing concentrations in breast milk. And then last month, the Oakland Tribune published the results of a study it com missioned that found potentially dangerous PBDE levels in the young children of a Berkeley family. California banned two classes of PBDEs two years ago, and scientists know these chemicals act as developmental neurotoxins in laboratory animals -- yet we know relatively very little about them because there have been so few studies overall. Unlike foods and prescription drugs, chemicals in this country are innocent until proven guilty. But it won't be that way next year in Europe when the EU switches to a new policy -- REACH -- that requires chemicals to be evaluated before going on the market. However, the Tribune reports that the ever-powerful chemical industry is receiving help from the Bush administration in its effort to gut REACH.
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