Flame retardants still a common contaminant in food, researchers warn

salmon photoPhoto credit: Swanson School of Engineering/Carla Ng

There’s an old saying that you are what you eat. That’s true. It’s also true that you are what you eat ate. Eating contaminated food has always been a health hazard but in simpler times, the most common contaminants were bacterial. Today, it’s chemicals that are causing concern, especially the so-called persistent organic pollutants or POPs, which can be more easily passed along to the end consumer — for example, you when you’re eating farmed salmon.

POPs skulk around the environment threatening human health through direct contact, inhalation, and most commonly, eating contaminated food. As people are becoming more aware of their food’s origin, new research at the University of Pittsburgh suggests it might be just as important to pay attention to the origin of your food’s food — what that salmon you’re having for dinner ate before it was caught.

chemicals graphicPitt researcher Carla Ng tracked the presence of a class of synthetic flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which were once a popular additive to increase fire resistance in consumer products such as electronics, textiles, and plastics. PBDEs were among the chemicals found to be “of most concern” in a 2016 study of hazardous chemicals that routinely make their way into the food supply.

“The United States and much of Europe banned several PBDEs in 2004 because of environmental and public health concerns,” said Dr. Ng in a news release. “PBDEs can act as endocrine disruptors and cause developmental effects. Children are particularly vulnerable.” The study appears in the June 19 issue of the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.


The problem is that, despite restrictions on their use,  PBDEs continue to be released into the environment because of their long lifetime and abundance in consumer goods. They are particularly dense in areas such as China, Thailand, and Vietnam that process a lot of electronic waste and do not regulate much of their recycling.

“The international food trade system is becoming increasingly global in nature and this applies to animal feed as well. Fish farming operations may import their feed or feed ingredients from a number of countries, including those without advanced food safety regulations,” Ng said.

Farmed salmon

Most models to predict human exposure to pollutants typically focus on people in relation to their local environment. Ng’s model compared a variety of factors to find the best predictor of PBDEs in farmed salmon, including pollutants inhaled through gills, how the fish metabolized and eliminated pollutants, and of course, the concentration of pollutants in the feed.

“We found that feed is relatively less important in areas that already have high concentrations of pollutants in the environment. However, in otherwise clean and well-regulated environments, contaminated feed can be thousands of times more significant than the location of the farm for determining the PBDE content of salmon fillets,” Ng said.

Ng says the model could be modified and applied to other fish with high global trading volumes such as tilapia or red snapper. It could also be used to predict pollutant content in livestock or feeds produced in contamination “hot spots.”

“Hot spots are places identified as having high levels of pollutants,” says Ng. “As these chemicals circulate through the environment, much ends up in the ocean. It’s extremely important to pay attention to the sourcing of ocean commodities and areas where pollutant concentrations are particularly high.”

Ng’s model also helps inform contamination control strategies such as substituting fish oils for plant-based materials or taking measures to decontaminate fish oil before human consumption.

About the Author

Truman Lewis
Truman has been a bureau chief and correspondent in D.C., Los Angeles, Phoenix and elsewhere, reporting for radio, television, print and news services, for more than 30 years. Most recently, he has reported extensively on health and consumer issues for ConsumerAffairs.com and FairfaxNews.com.