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Pollutants in Californian Breast Tissue

Levels of flame retardant chemical pollutants (PBDE) in the tissues of women from around the world are compared.

October 26, 2012 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited


Images thanks to: He Who Laughs Last via Wikimedia Commons, Mark A. Vargas, PITR, and Mark Heard.


Measuring urine levels of industrial toxins is more useful than measuring food levels, since it indicates how much of the pollutants are actually absorbed into the body. So in one sense it tells you what kind of levels are circulating in your body; at the same time it’s telling you how much your body is successfully getting rid. Ideally we’d like to measure levels in human tissues. Like how much is actually lodged in one’s breast tissue for example. Well, people get breast surgery all the time, why not test surgical samples of removed tissue. Women get fibroids removed, we can test those, fresh autopsy samples—and hey, what about liposuction?

How did the levels of polybromated diphenylethers, fire retardant chemicals in the breast tissue of California women compare to various tissue samples taken from women around the world? Where do these flags fit? Which of these bars represents the levels found in Belgian women, Brazilian women, Californian Czech, French, Hong Kong, Japanese, New Yorkers, Singaporean, or Spanish women.

Do we wish they could all be California? No

Look at that spread—two orders of magnitude. The breast tissue of California women had nearly 10 times more than women in any other country, and compared to the lowest levels—autopsy samples of Japanese women—a hundred times higher levels found in New Yorker liposuction.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Kerry Skinner.

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Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

I covered PBDE's previously in Flame Retardant Chemical Contamination and The Problem with Organic Salmon. How contaminated are Americans in general? See CDC Report on Environmental Chemical Exposure, the first in this video series on our dietary exposure to industrial pollutants. There are better ways to lower the levels in our bodies than liposuction—in Monday's video-of-the-day I'll explore the Food Sources of Flame Retardant Chemicals. In the meanwhile please feel free to check out any of the other 1,000+ covered topics.

For some context, please check out my associated blog posts: Pollutants in Californian Breast TissueProtecting Our Babies From Pollutants, and Why Are Children Starting Puberty Earlier?

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    I covered PBDE’s before in Flame Retardant Chemical Contamination and The Problem With Organic Salmon. How contaminated are Americans in general? See CDC Report on Environmental Chemical Exposure, the first in this video series on our dietary exposure to industrial pollutants. There’s better ways to lower the levels in our bodies than liposuction—in Monday’s video-of-the-day I’ll explore the Food Sources of Flame Retardant Chemicals. In the meanwhile please feel free to check out any of the other 1,000+ covered topics.

    If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

    • HemoDynamic, M.D.

      Interesting and disturbing simultaneously!

      Before I watched the ending I guessed that New Yorkers would have the highest Flame Retardent levels because of 911.  I don’t know if this is why but it probably added to the breast burden.

      It’s pretty clear that living in America puts one at increased risk for toxic exposure!   We’re even the country that allows the most GMO’s to be fed to our kids, grand kids, friends, relatives, parents, and ourselves.  Enough already!!!
      Lets start being informed on at least some of the toxin’s that are in our food such as BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin and Round Up weed killer–both of which are in nearly all the Corn, Soybean and Canola oil which is about 90% GMO.
      VOTE  YES, YES, YES on Proposition 37 if you live in California.

      And buy Organic if possible to minimize exposure to these harmful chemicals.

      Tell the world we’ve had enough already!!!

      I love this video series but it makes me sad because of the disturbing reality of it all!

    • ben

      If fish is one of the worst sources and Japanese people tend to eat a lot of fish, why are they the lowest on the scale?

  • Veganrunner

    Ok….that is sad. Could it be partly due to the increased adipose tissue Americans carry? And, adipose tissue is full of toxins?

    It is so important to limit exposure as much as possible. Keep a chemical free yard, use glass, stay away from processed foods, buy organic, grow your own.

    And yes Dr. hemo, hope proposition 37 passes because “as California goes, so goes the rest of the country.”

    • BPCveg

      The authors of the cited study provide the following explanation as to why they chose breast adipose tissue:

      “Adipose tissue is the preferred tissue to measure steady state concentrations of lipophilic contaminants such as PBDEs and PCBs accumulated over time since measurements in breast milk or serum may be affected by surges in blood lipids ( [Archibeque-Engle et al., 1997] and [Petreas et al., 2004]) and may be biased.” (see Discussion section, paragraph 1)

  • Thea

    Very interesting.  And such a comment on American society and priorities.

  • R Ian Flett

    The quantities vary so greatly by US state that it can’t be just diet. 
    What about air-dropped fire retardants used against wildfires? Another candidate might be the much higher air pollution resulting from more temperature inversions in the  Cali-fornia (hot desert) climate.Also, fire retardant fabrics from furniture, carpets and building materials, tend to leach more in warmer average temperatures.Does anyone have any established theories on why Ca is so bad?

    • Veganrunner

      And why us New York worse?

      • R Ian Flett

        Yes, by all measures of air pollution CA easily beats NYK and it has more wildfires and more inversions, so these variables can’t be the biggest factor by a long way. Whatever would seem to differentiate the US from other countries seems to work in reverse between these two states. I hope we are going to get an answer.

      • R Ian Flett

        Someone has suggested that it’s building materials and furniture that contain halogenated fire retardants that is the real problem. They are more widely used in the US than elsewhere and CA has more stringent controls than NYK. It’s frightening stuff.

    • BPCveg

      The discussion section of the source article provided key insights as to why these flame retardants (i.e. PBDEs) are so high in California, namely:

      ” PBDE levels in house dust from California were 4–10 times higher than previously reported in North America and PBDEs in serum of California residents were nearly twice those of the general US population (Zota et al., 2008), consistent with California’s flammability standard and the presumed high use of flame retardants.” (from the Discussion section, paragraph 2) 

      Ironically, Dr. Greger cites the one paper that shows no association between flame retardants (i.e. PBDEs) and diet. To wit:

      “Our findings of no association between diet and PBDE levels is inconsistent with an emerging literature demonstrating modest associations between PBDE body burden levels and consumption of meat, poultry (Fraser et al., 2009) and dairy (Wu et al., 2007).” (from the Discussion section, paragraph 4)

  • Myjolina

    Any chance you could tell us, your Canadian readers, where we fit in?   

    • Don Forrester MD

       I wasn’t able to find studies on Canadians however based on studies so far on other populations it is mainly depends on what you eat… unless you have other exposures such as industrial, community exposures(i.e industrial plants, water) and/or household products. Hopefully the standard “Canadian” diet (CAD) is better then the standard “American” diet(SAD).

  • Liberate

    I wonder why Dr. Greger does not tell everyone that there is already a cure for cancer, and it was found by Dr. Max Gerson (who fled Nazi Germany) in the 1920′s.  The Gerson cure for cancer should be known by everyone!  Please, Dr. Greger, tell the American public about this.  Dr. Gerson collected thousands of patient case files, and he has developed a cure for many types of cancer as well as certain other diseases.  For example, he successfully treated Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s family with his cure, which allows the body to heal itself using the potent chemicals found in fresh fruits and vegetables. Check out Dr. Gerson’s therapy on the internet!

  • Michael Roth

    Hyperthyroidism in cats is being diagnosed much more frequently compared to just a couple of decades ago. PBDE exposure has  been implicated.

  • David Hefflefinger

    Arlene Blum, a famous mountaineer, has a compelling mountaineering/ flame retardent slide show presentation. In the 70′s she got flame retardent pulled from children’s pajamas. Now she’s working hard to get flame retardent removed from furniture. The PBDE industry is almost criminal.