Toxic Household Dust?

Ruby Friedman
CBS
After her daughter Ruby was born, Katrina Friedman made a startling discovery. The dust in her house contained trace amounts of a potentially dangerous chemical compound called polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

Friedman learned Ruby's exposure to PBDE was near the level that animal studies suggest can disrupt brain development in children and possibly contribute to cancer.

She found herself asking: "What am I going to do? How do I keep my child safe from this stuff? It's insidious! It's absolutely everywhere."

Everywhere indeed. As CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone reports, researchers are discovering the dust in just about everyone's home is tainted with PBDE.

Kim Hooper of California's Department of Toxic Substances Control says the production of PBDE, a fire retardant, has doubled in the last decade.

Each year some 75 million pounds of PBDE are used to add fire resistance to everything from TV sets to toasters and computers. The fire resistant foam in most furniture is loaded with PBDEs. The trouble is, the chemical doesn't stay inside.

Scientists have now discovered PBDE escapes into the air, attaching to dust particles.

"It loves to be on dust," says Hooper.

It seems hard to believe that something that's in the case of a computer is going to get into one's body.

Hooper says she felt the same way, "but the mass spectometer doesn't lie."

To measure human exposure to PBDE researchers asked a group of new mothers, including Friedman, to collect samples of their breast milk.

"You kind of think of breast milk as a sacred thing - it's mother's milk," says Friedman. "You know, it's supposed to be the most pure thing in the world."

But when Arthur Holden of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control studied the samples, he found levels of PBDE he calls shocking, even though at this time, no direct link has been made to health problems in humans.

"They're man-made chemicals that should not be in our bodies," says Holden. "The federal EPA ought to act on this and probably they will eventually, but always a little too late I think."

Most frustrating perhaps consumers can do little to avoid PBDEs. There are no labels to show the products they're in and no way to tell how much dust in your house is contaminated.