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August 10, 2004

The Good News is that Salmon are Protected from Flames

More bad news about PBDEs--toxic chemicals used as commercial flame retardants--was reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and many other papers. According to a new study published in Environmental Science & Technology, both wild and farmed salmon are tainted with PBDEs. Used in many products, ranging from couch cushions to computers, PBDEs are chemical cousins of PCBs, and have been shown linked to learning and memory deficits in laboratory animals. Especially alarming was the fact that some chinook had levels as high or higher than farmed salmon (in general, though, farmed salmon were more contaminated).

How should consumers interpret the results--as a mandate to go on a salmon-free diet? Not necessarily. As health experts point out, salmon's omega-3 fatty acids are linked to many health benefits. And, though other studies have shown that PBDEs are also acculumating rapidly in humans, we have little evidence about how they wind up in our bodies. Northwest Environment Watch's study of PBDEs in the breastmilk of Puget Sound women, for example, indicated levels up to ten times higher than levels found in the salmon.

The study might be better interpreted as another telling example of the wide reach of industrial chemicals in general, and PBDEs in particular; and yet more evidence that we should consider implementing a "look before you leap" approach with new chemicals. Europe, not surprsingly, is pioneering this idea with its Reach proposal. Aren't our continuing problems with lead (also reported on this morning) enough of a cautionary tale?

P.S: This September, NEW is releasing a study that looks at how three persistent toxins--including PBDEs, PCBs, and dioxins--are accumulating in the bodies of northwesterners. And here's a fact sheet about what northwesterners can do to help reduce the use of PBDEs and other persistent toxins.

Posted by Elisa Murray | Permalink


It's hard to be cautious when you're in complete denial about your process and its effects (cf. the other, "fewer toxics") -- when industry is expected to stand financially behind their intended ("Fireproof!") and unintended ("Persistent toxins!") product lines, we'll see more cautious decisions.

Meanwhile, there's that P-I story on lead in Seattle schools, illustrating again how the cautionary principle just can't get started:

"To get to the level of contamination plaguing the district today, warnings about lead had to be ignored, a comprehensive testing and repair program had to be abandoned and aging water systems had to be neglected."

And then:

"District Superintendent Raj Manhas has said he's not interested in launching an investigation into why the water problems weren't addressed sooner, and thinks district resources would be better used for fixing problems rather than identifying a scapegoat."

Yes, it's good to avoid scapegoating, but when all the evidence suggests systemic failure, how much good is "fixing problems" -- without investigating why they are perpetuated -- going to do? After all, the lead may be just one symptom of this failure.

With all due respect to the Superintendent, it seems to me that this decision relates to the mission of Seattle schools (What are the kids learning from this experience, after all?), and needs to be addressed by parents. Trust the real stakeholders.

Posted by: Michael Baker | Aug 11, 2004 1:46:52 PM

Well, I know this was posted over a year ago, but the headline STILL makes me wonder:

Does this mean the salmon can't be bar-b-q'd?


Posted by: Michelle Parker | Sep 27, 2005 5:41:02 PM