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Mary Brune

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One Mom's Message to the Chemical Industry: Don't Mess With My Milk!

Posted: 08/20/07 01:25 PM ET

Outdated California regulations are leading to toxic fire retardant chemicals in furniture sold in California and distributed across the nation. This blog documents the adventures of advocates fighting the chemical industry in a high-stakes battle in Sacramento to prohibit toxic chemicals in furniture found in millions of American homes. Russell Long of Friends of the Earth, Mary Brune of Making Our Milk Safe (MOMS), biophysical chemist Arlene Blum, and Joan Blades of MomsRising.org, (which is launching a letter to the Governor campaign to support AB 706) will share their adventures as they work together to phase out toxic brominated and chlorinated chemical fire retardants from the nation's furniture.

Like most parents, I'm a stickler when it comes to safety. I plugged up the electrical outlets before my daughter was even born. At one year of age, she knew that small, "choke-able" items were off-limits, and that pulling on the cat's tail was definitely a bad idea.

What about the dangers you can't anticipate? Like the invisible layer of potentially toxic flame retardant chemicals lurking on the surfaces and in the corners of our homes? Even a super mom with x-ray vision would be no match for that.

It's ironic, actually, that our current problem with toxic flame retardants began with a quest for safety. Twenty-five years ago, California established the most stringent flammability standards in the country, resulting in the use of billions of pounds of fire retardant chemicals -- chemicals that would later be linked to cancer, reproductive problems, neurological and developmental conditions, and thyroid disorders.

I'd like to think that someone would have seen this coming. Come to think of it, someone did.

Thirty years ago, Biophysical chemist Arlene Blum discovered that Tris, a chemical used to make children's sleepwear fire resistant, was getting into their bodies. Blum's research exposed Tris as a mutagen and probable human carcinogen and spurred a phase-out of the chemical in sleepwear.

Fast forward 30 years and the same chemical Blum helped get out of kids' pjs is the second most-used flame retardant in furniture in California. If a chemical like chlorinated Tris was too dangerous to be next to children's skin, how on earth did it end up in items that they come into close physical contact with every day?

Studies show that children have higher levels of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies than other members of the family. Why? Because of who kids are. They're curious creatures. They touch things, chew on things -- it's their way of exploring the world around them. Its one thing to train a child not to put her fingers in a light socket, swallow coins, or torment the cat. It's an entirely different thing to try to keep a child from pulling herself up on a window sill, crawling on the floor, or snuggling with a favorite stuffed toy -- all of which are places where residues of fire retardant chemicals can settle.

It's bad enough that these chemicals have become ubiquitous in our homes. As a mom who nursed my daughter until about a month ago, I find the presence of these chemicals in breast milk to be a violation of the worst kind. It's a no-brainer that breast milk is the best food for babies. It promotes brain development, protects against disease, obesity, tooth decay and more. It's precisely because breast milk offers these and so many other benefits to babies that we need to do whatever we can to protect it.

In 1997, after seeing the levels of flame retardant chemicals called PBDEs (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers) in breast milk double every five years, Sweden introduced a voluntary phase-out of the chemicals and saw a corresponding decline in their levels in breast milk of Swedish mothers. Don't American mothers -- and their babies -- deserve the same action?

And for the safety-conscious among us, here's the good news: We don't have to sacrifice fire safety in order to do it. And we can do it while maintaining the same level of fire safety we have today.

That's why we need AB 706 (Leno-D, San Francisco), The California Furniture Safety and Fire Prevention Act. The bill bans the most toxic types of fire retardants from use in furniture and bedding -- those items that our bodies and our children's bodies are in closest contact with every day.

When interviewed for Mothering magazine about the subject of toxins in breast milk, author Sandra Steingraber said, "finding a non-toxic alternative for each and every toxic substance contaminating mother's milk should be a national priority." Let's start by making it California's priority. Let's pass AB 706 and get toxic flame retardant chemicals out of our homes, out of our bodies, and out of mother's milk.