Brominated flame retardants are persistent toxins we all are collecting in our bodies. Flame retardants disrupt hormones, have a negative effect on neurological development and behavior, and cause liver abnormalities in animals. They may also be carcinogenic. In humans, flame retardants disrupt male sex hormones and fertility. They also throw off our thyroid balance, and cause lower birth weight in newborns.
The most troublesome flame retardants are a group of bromine-containing chemicals. Two of the most difficult flame retardants are no longer being produced in the United States but vast quantities of them remain in a variety of consumer products still in use. Mixtures of flame retardants are found throughout both our indoor and outdoor environment as well as in human blood and breast milk. Levels of flame retardants are much higher in the U.S. than in Europe and Asia.
Our flame retardants come from dust we come in contact with and our diet. Fats seem to be the primary dietary source. Thus, levels of flame retardants in the breast milk of Boston women increased the more meat and dairy products they ate. Vegan levels of flame retardants diminished the longer they ate a vegan diet (vegans eat no animal foods). To confirm the correlation between animal fats and flame retardant levels, researchers decided to compare blood levels in omnivores and vegetarians. At the same time, they analyzed which foods were responsible for the highest flame retardant levels. This study relied on NANHES, a Center for Disease Control study that collects data on some 5,000 people/year, data that includes tests for some 10 different flame retardants.
Usually, vegetarians are defined as people who do not eat animal products other than dairy products and eggs. This study ended up defining them quite differently. Only 18 of the people in the survey had avoided both poultry and red meat for a year, a group too small to study. Instead, the researchers based their definition on the fact 3% of Americans consider themselves vegetarian and categorized the 3% of those surveyed with the lowest consumption of chicken and meats as vegetarians. In many respects this study is not comparing vegetarians with omnivores but rather is comparing those who eat very little chicken and meat with those who eat more.
Nonetheless, there were real differences between these two groups. Flame retardant levels in vegetarians were 23-27% lower than in the omnivores. Poultry fats and red meat fats delivered the most flame retardants, and those eating the least amount of those fats had the lowest blood levels. Those eating moderate amounts had lower levels that the omnivores eating the most. This study did not find other foods (dairy, seafood, eggs, or non-animal foods) to have much effect on flame retardant levels. This data correlated with earlier studies showing that poultry fat contains more flame retardants than beef or pork, and that the amount of poultry and meat in the diet determined flame retardant levels in breast milk. The lack of correlation with dairy and seafood intake differed from previous studies. Several of those show the highest flame retardant levels in seafood. The researchers suspected that the lack of effect of seafood was simply because most Americans eat such small amounts of seafood that its effect was too dilute to show up. As for dairy, they hypothesized that the results were due to the survey’s failure to ask for amounts of various foods eaten.
The study conclusions were clear though: If you want slow the accumulation of flame retardants in your body, avoid animal fats and especially avoid chicken fat. If you want to reduce the amounts you already have, it looks like a vegan diet will be your best bet.
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