Study Finds Flame Retardant Chemicals In Washington State's Rivers, Lakes

Flame retardant chemicals are building up in some of Washington's rivers and lakes, according to a state Department of Ecology (Ecology) study released on Aug. 31.

Ecology collected fish from 20 major rivers and lakes throughout Washington during 2005. Three-to-four fish species were typically analyzed for each waterbody. The goal of the survey was to establish existing levels of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) that could be used in the future to evaluate the effectiveness of the state's efforts to reduce PBDEs in the environment.

Total PBDE concentrations in fish are less than 10 parts per billion (ppb) in most rivers and lakes, state officials said. However, certain fish species from several large water bodies -- Palouse River, Columbia River, Lake Washington, Snohomish River, Cowlitz River, and Snake River -- have total PBDE concentrations in the 10 ppb to 200 ppb range. High PBDE concentrations were found throughout the Spokane River, exceeding 1,000 ppb in some cases. Overall, rivers have higher PBDE levels than lakes.

Except for the Spokane River, the PBDE levels fall within the range observed by the federal EPA nationwide in lakes, state officials said. The Spokane River also appears high when compared to other sources of data on PBDEs in fish from North American rivers and lakes.

"The source of PBDEs in the Spokane River is unclear," said Dave Peeler, Ecology's water quality program manager. "Identifying those sources is a high priority so that we can begin to control them."

A growing body of research indicates that PBDEs are building up in people's bodies, in animals and in the environment, state officials said. The exact way that people are exposed to PBDEs is not fully known, but recent research points to human exposure from indoor air and dust and from certain foods, especially some species of fish.

PBDEs have been linked to problems with brain and reproductive organ development and with disruption of normal hormone levels in laboratory rodents, state officials said. Research is under way by regulatory, human health and natural resource agencies in the United States to establish what levels of PBDEs may adversely affect human health, aquatic life or wildlife based on the most current data.

"It's important to track these contaminants and take steps to reduce their levels in the environment," said state Department of Health's Rob Duff. "At the same time, we recommend that people include fish in their diet and choose from the many fish known to be low in contaminants."

PBDEs, like many other chemicals, build up in the fat of some species of fish. People can reduce exposures to PBDEs by preparing and cooking fish in ways that reduce the fat. The Department of Health's Fish Facts Web site ( provides information about eating fish.

The Departments of Ecology and Health began studying PBDEs and developing an action plan in 2004 to reduce PBDEs in the environment. After a thorough review of the available science and consulting with stakeholders, Ecology and Health released their final PBDE action plan in January 2006.

Ecology and Health recommend in the plan that the Legislature ban Deca-BDE, the most widely used PBDE and the only one remaining in production -- provided that safer, effective alternatives are identified. The agencies also recommended an immediate ban on two forms of PBDEs known as Penta-BDE and Octa-BDE, which are already being phased-out of production. None of the recommendations would impact fire safety.

"The only reasonable way to stop the buildup of PBDEs in our environment and our bodies is to prevent them from being used in products once safer alternatives are available," said Janice Adair, a policy advisor at Ecology. "We strongly supported a bill last session that would have implemented our recommendations. That bill didn't pass, but our position remains the same, and we hope to see similar legislation in the upcoming session."

For additional information on PBDEs, visit Ecology's Web site at or EPA's Web site at

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