Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)

At a Glance

PBDEs are a class of compounds used as flame retardants.  They are endocrine disrupting compounds associated primarily with thyroid disruption. Some evidence also links them to breast cancer.

What are polybrominated diphenyl ethers?

PBDEs are flame retardant chemicals found in household and industrial products.[1],[2]  They are closely related to polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), which the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies as probably carcinogenic to humans.[3]

Where are polybrominated diphenyl ethers found?

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers are found in consumer products such as furniture, plastic, electronics, and fabric.[4],[5] PBDEs pollute the environment and can bioaccumulate.[6] They have been found in water, animal products, birds, fish, human tissue, breast milk, soil, dust and the air.[7],[8]

What evidence links polybrominated diphenyl ethers to breast cancer?

PBDEs affect a number of hormonal systems, including the androgen, progestin and estrogen systems, although the system most strongly affected by PBDEs is the thyroid hormone system.[9]

  • Breast cancer cells exposed to the polybrominated diphenyl ether penta-BDE showed increased growth. The chemical acted like estrogen in promoting proliferation of the cancer cells.[10]
  • Various PBDEs in breast cancer cells displayed estrogen-like qualities and amplified the growth of the cells.[11]
  • PBDEs may affect both estrogen and thyroid hormone processes in ways that could increase the risk of breast cancer.[12],[13]
  • In breast cancer cells treated with PBDE-209 and an anti-cancer drug (tamoxifen), the PBDE neutralized the effects of the drug.[14]

Other health effects

  • PBDEs disrupt thyroid hormone levels, impacting brain development.[15]
  • Rodents exposed to PBDE-209 had an increased incidence of thyroid tumors.[16]

Who is most likely to be exposed to polybrominated diphenyl ethers?

Everyone is exposed to PBDEs through household products.[17],[18] However, people with certain occupations, such as firefighting, may be exposed to PBDEs more often and at higher concentrations.[19] Since 2004, many PBDEs have been phased out of use,[20] but replacement chemicals also present health concerns and data gaps.[21],[22]

Who is most vulnerable to the health effects?

The health effects of certain PBDEs, such as BDE-47, are dose-dependent.[23] Anyone who is repeatedly exposed to large doses of PBDEs is more susceptible to the toxic effects. For example, firefighters are more vulnerable to the health effects, as they regularly encounter PBDEs in high concentrations.[24]

What are the top tips to avoid exposure?

  • Choose products that are free of chemical flame retardants.[25],[26],[27] The Natural Resources Defense Council has researched major furniture retailers and offers a report card on their flame-retardant policies.
  • Clean with a moist cloth to avoid putting PBDE-containing dust in the air.[28]
  • Use a HEPA filter on air conditioning vents and vacuums.[29]
  • Wash your hands frequently. One study found that handwashing reduced office exposures to PBDEs.[30]

[1] Costa, L., & Giordano, G. (2007). Developmental neurotoxicity of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. Neurotoxicology, 28, 1047–1067.

[2] Technical Fact Sheet – Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs). (2014, January). Retrieved August 24, 2016, from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-03/documents/ffrrofactsheet_contaminant_perchlorate_january2014_final_0.pdf

[3] EPA Technical Fact Sheet – Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs). (2014, January). Retrieved August 24, 2016, from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-03/documents/ffrrofactsheet_contaminant_perchlorate_january2014_final_0.pdf

[4] Costa, L., & Giordano, G. (2007). Developmental neurotoxicity of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. Neurotoxicology, 28, 1047–1067.

[5] EPA Technical Fact Sheet – Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs). (2014, January). Retrieved August 24, 2016, from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-03/documents/ffrrofactsheet_contaminant_perchlorate_january2014_final_0.pdf

[6] Costa, L., & Giordano, G. (2007). Developmental neurotoxicity of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. Neurotoxicology, 28, 1047–1067.

[7] EPA Technical Fact Sheet – Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs). (2014, January). Retrieved August 24, 2016, from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-03/documents/ffrrofactsheet_contaminant_perchlorate_january2014_final_0.pdf

[8] Costa, L., & Giordano, G. (2007). Developmental neurotoxicity of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. Neurotoxicology, 28, 1047–1067.

[9] Costa L, Giordano G, Tagliaferri S, Caglieri A, Mutti A. Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants: environmental contamination, human body burden and potential adverse health effects. ACTA Biomed. 2008;79:172-83.

[10] Yu, L., & Zhan, P. (2009). Molecular mechanisms underlying proliferation and apoptosis in breast cancer MCF-7 cells induced by pentabrominated diphenyl ethers. Toxicol Environ Chem, 91, 665–670.

[11] Meerts, I., Letcher, R., Hoving, S., Marsh, G., Bergman, A., Lemmen, J., … Brouwer, A. (2001). In vitro estrogenicity of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, hydroxylated PBDEs, and polybrominated bisphenol A compounds. Environ Health Persp, 109, 399–407.

[12] Davis F, Lin H-Y, Luidens M, Zhou M, Mousa S. Similar and Shared Nongenomic Mechanisms of Action of Estrogen and Thyroid Hormone. Immunology‚ Endocrine & Metabolic Agents in Medicinal Chemistry. 2009;9:84-9.

[13] Birnbaum L. Halogenated flame retardants: Does the benefit justify the risk? Environ Health Perspect. 2009;117:A478.

[14] Li, Z. H., Liu, X. Y., Wang, N., Chen, J. S., Chen, Y. H., Huang, J. T., … & Chen, D. J. (2012). Effects of decabrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE-209) in regulation of growth and apoptosis of breast, ovarian, and cervical cancer cells. Environmental health perspectives120(4), 541.

[15] Costa, L. G., Giordano, G., Tagliaferri, S., Caglieri, A., & Mutti, A. (2008). Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants: environmental contamination, human body burden and potential adverse health effects.Acta Biomed79(3), 172-183.

[16] Costa, L. G., Giordano, G., Tagliaferri, S., Caglieri, A., & Mutti, A. (2008). Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants: environmental contamination, human body burden and potential adverse health effects.Acta Biomed79(3), 172-183.

[17] Costa, L., & Giordano, G. (2007). Developmental neurotoxicity of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. Neurotoxicology, 28, 1047–1067.

[18] Technical Fact Sheet – Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs). (2014, January). Retrieved August 24, 2016, from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-03/documents/ffrrofactsheet_contaminant_perchlorate_january2014_final_0.pdf

[19] Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Hearing; “Oversight of EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) Authorities and Actions to Control Exposures to Toxic Chemicals.” (2012). Government Press Releases (USA).

[20] Dodson RE, Perovich LJ, Covaci A, et al. After the PBDE phase-out: A broad suite of flame retardants in repeat house dust samples from California.  Environ Sci Technol. 2012;46:13056-66.

[21] Patisaul HB, Roberts SC, Mabrey N, et al. Accumulation and Endocrine Disrupting Effects of the Flame Retardant Mixture Firemaster® 550 in Rats: An Exploratory Assessment. Journal of Biochemical and Molecular Toxicology. 2013;27:124-36.

[22] Dodson RE, Perovich LJ, Covaci A, et al. After the PBDE phase-out: A broad suite of flame retardants in repeat house dust samples from California.  Environ Sci Technol. 2012;46:13056-66.

[23] Emond, C., Sanders, J. M., Wikoff, D., & Birnbaum, L. S. (2013). Proposed mechanistic description of dose-dependent BDE-47 urinary elimination in mice using a physiologically based pharmacokinetic model. Toxicology and applied pharmacology273(2), 335-344.

[24] Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Hearing; “Oversight of EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) Authorities and Actions to Control Exposures to Toxic Chemicals.” (2012). Government Press Releases (USA).

[25] EWG’s Healthy Home Tips – Avoid fire retardants. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2016, from http://www.ewg.org/research/healthy-home-tips/tip-4-avoid-fire-retardants

[26] NRDC Fact Sheet. Safer Sofas: How do major furniture stores compare. 2014. Available online:  https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/safer-sofas-FS.pdf

[27] CEH: Center for Environmental Health. Flame Retardants. 2013. Available online: http://www.ceh.org/campaigns/flame-retardants/

[28] PBDEs: Information for Pediatric Health Professionals. (2010). Retrieved August 24, 2016, from http://depts.washington.edu/pehsu/sites/default/files/PBDE factsheet FINAL May 2010 (PDF format).pdf

[29] PBDEs: Information for Pediatric Health Professionals. (2010). Retrieved August 24, 2016, from http://depts.washington.edu/pehsu/sites/default/files/PBDE factsheet FINAL May 2010 (PDF format).pdf

[30] Watkins DJ, McClean MD, Fraser AJ, Weinberg J, Stapleton HM, Sjodin A, & Webster TF. “Exposure to PBDEs in the office environment: evaluating the relationships between dust, handwipes, and serum.” Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Sep;119(9):1247-52.

[31] NRDC: National Resources Defense Council. How to Buy a Safer Sofa. 2016. Available online: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-buy-safer-sofa

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