(CBS News) A new study from researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health has revealed that flame retardant chemicals were found in many samples taken from popular food items.
While less than half of the tested food products had detectible levels of the chemical called hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), 15 out of the 36 items tested positive. HBCD is used in polystyrene foam in the building and construction industry and can be found worldwide in the environment and wildlife, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It has been highly toxic for aquatic organisms, and shown to have troubling effects on animal populations.
"The levels we found are lower than what the government agencies currently think are dangerous," study author Dr. Arnold Schecter, a public health physician at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, told WebMD. "But those levels were determined one chemical at a time."
The results were published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a National Institute of Health publication, on May 31.
The researchers bought the samples from Dallas-area supermarkets between 2009 and 2010. The foods with detectable levels tended to be items with fish like canned sardines or fresh salmon or products with meat like deli-sliced turkey or ham in them. One out of the three varieties of chili with beans also tested positive.
A spokesperson for the North American Flame Retardant Alliance of the American Chemistry Council told WebMD that it should be noted that the majority of the tested items did not have HBCD, and if it was found in the product, it contained levels much lower than levels reported to show negative health effects.
Just because HBDC hasn't been shown to have adverse affects to humans doesn't necessarily mean that scientists won't find out they cause them in the future, Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center at the Department of Population Health at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., cautions to HealthPop.
In animal tests, the chemicals have been show to disrupt hormones in the endocrine system and in the thyroid. Concern has also been raised since it has also been shown to affect neurodevelopment, which means young children or pregnant populations can potentially be at risk. Europe has stricter regulations on the use of HBCD, and Spaeth says HBCD levels within their populations are clearly lower than levels found in U.S. residents.
"It's an extremely controversial area," he explains to HealthPop. "In my opinion, the determination of what is safe and what isn't, the jury is still out (on HBCD). We don't have enough good data to say definitely what is good or isn't."
Spaeth says HBCD often gets into food products through contamination in the environment. It is often discarded in our water sources, which allows them to seep into the soil. The chemicals work their way up through the food chain when they are absorbed by plants, which are then eaten by animals. Spaeth says this is why you often find HBCD in meat, dairy and fish products.
But, it's not just our food that's contaminated. Spaeth points out that HBCD is very prevalent in our households because it often binds itself to dust - and tests have shown that the levels found in our homes are often higher than what is recorded in food sources. The chemical is used in common products including furniture, telephones, washing machines and our stoves. This can be especially troublesome for children, who often crawl on the floor and put lots of items in their mouths. To minimize exposure, Spaeth suggests using a vaccum with a hepafilter and washing your hands frequently.
"It's fine to be cautious and vocal. Just because we 'know' it's safe doesn't mean we shouldn't try to minimize exposure, especially in vulnerable populations," he says.