SACRAMENTO — The state's top environmental official on Monday backed a proposal to make California the first state to ban two forms of chemicals used as flame retardants.
California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Winston Hickox cited research showing that the chemicals commonly used in upholstery, electronics, and other foam and plastic products accumulate in the blood of mothers and their newborn children.
State lawmakers are considering restrictions -- similar to those recently adopted by the European Union -- that will ban their use by mid-2004.
Though some U.S. manufacturers have voluntarily stopped using what are collectively known as PBDEs -- polybrominated diphenyl ethers -- Hickox said the chemicals should be regulated nationally.
In the face of federal "inaction," Hickox said that California should ban any chemicals that "raise serious public health questions."
Other less dangerous fire retardants are available, the state EPA chief said.
The level of the chemicals in European women's breast milk declined after the ban there, and Hickox said he expects similar results in California if the ban is adopted.
Citing research partly developed by the state EPA, Hickox said the chemicals can disrupt the thyroid and hurt children's brain development.
In March, California researchers reported that Bay Area women have three to 10 times greater amounts of the chemical flame retardant in their breast tissue than either European or Japanese women.
Indiana University researchers reported at the same time that levels in Indiana and California women and infants tested 20 times higher than levels reported in Sweden and Norway, where the ban is set to take effect this year.
A study published by the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2001 found North American mothers had breast-milk PBDE levels at least 40 times the highest concentrations found in Sweden.
And in 1998, Swedish scientists reported levels of PBDE in breast milk had increased 40-fold since 1972.
The levels in North American women are the highest in the world and are nearing levels that have been shown to damage learning, memory and behavior in laboratory mice, Hickox said.
The chemicals have been widely found, from San Francisco harbor seals to Great Lakes birds and Arctic polar bears.
Similar in effect to PCBs and DDT -- chemicals banned decades ago in the U.S. -- PBDE is what's called a persistent organic pollutant, or POP.
Such chemicals are persistent in two ways: They remain in the environment for years, and they can build up in the body over a lifetime.
Legislation by Assemblywoman Wilma Chan (D-Alameda) is pending in the Senate after it was approved in the Assembly without Republican support.
The bill would ban by 2008 two industrial formulations of PBDEs: pentabrominated diphenyl ethers (penta BDEs) and octabrominated diphenyl ethers (octa BDEs), both banned in Europe.
Chan said she hopes a California ban "will spark the rest of the nation to take action."
Twenty health and environmental groups backed her legislation; there were no groups in opposition.