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Clin Med Res. 2003 Oct;1(4):281-90.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs): new pollutants-old diseases.

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  • 1Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, Marshfield, Wisconsin 54449, USA. siddiqi.muhammad@mcrf.mfldclin.edu


Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a class of recalcitrant and bioaccumulative halogenated compounds that have emerged as a major environmental pollutant. PBDEs are used as a flame-retardant and are found in consumer goods such as electrical equipment, construction materials, coatings, textiles and polyurethane foam (furniture padding). Similar in structure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), PBDEs resist degradation in the environment. Less brominated PBDEs like tetra-, penta- and hexa- demonstrate high affinity for lipids and can accumulate in the bodies of animals and humans. Breast milk from North American women contained much higher amounts of PBDEs than levels in breast milk from Swedish women, indicating that North American exposures to PBDEs may be particularly high. Evidence to date suggests that tetra- and penta-BDEs are likely to be the more toxic and bioaccumulative of the PBDE compounds, compared to octa- and deca-congeners. PBDEs are sold as mixtures, under names such as "pentabromodiphenyl ether" and "octabromodiphenyl ether." The pentabromo product is a mixture of tetra-BDEs and penta-BDEs in approximately equal amounts. Pentabromo consists of PBDEs that are believed to be the most toxic. This mixture has been banned by the European Union, but is still used in North America. The United States is the leading producer and user of pentabromo. In August 2003, the State of California passed a bill to phase out the use of penta- and octa-PBDE by 2008. The toxicology of PBDEs is not well understood, but PBDEs have been associated with tumors, neurodevelopmental toxicity and thyroid hormone imbalance. The neurotoxic effects of PBDEs are similar to those observed for PCBs. Children exposed to PBDEs are prone to subtle but measurable developmental problems. It is presumed that PBDEs are endocrine disruptors, but research in this area is scant. Further studies are imperative in a multitude of health and environmental disciplines to determine the adverse effects and mode of action of this widespread emerging pollutant on human health.

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