A study conducted by the University of Texas (UT) School of Public Health showed high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants in butter samples purchased from five grocery stores in the city of Dallas.
Investigators suggest the incident represents the worst documented case of PBDE contamination in food ever reported in the U.S.
The leading company supplying plastic pallets to companies transporting and storing food, Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS), commissioned a life cycle analysis that revealed each of its pallets contain 3.4 lbs of decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE), one of several chemicals classified as PBDEs. While UT researchers speculated on possible causes of contamination such as the butter's paper wrapper, given the high levels of PBDE used in the plastic pallets, they should be examined as the root source of transfer to the food.
The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that between 50—100 million pounds of decaBDE was manufactured or imported in the U.S. in 2005. In 2008, iGPS announced an agreement with the plastic pallet manufacturer Schoeller Arca Systems that it would be producing up to 30 million pallets in the next five years – that's 102 million pounds of decaBDE. At annual averages, IGPS would be using between 20 and 40 percent of the EPA estimated total amount of this chemical.
Clearly plastic pallets are one of the largest users of decaBDE.
This is likely why just last week the EPA issued a news release saying it would conduct a Design for the Environment assessment on the flame retardant decaBDE in products such as "textiles, plastic pallets, and electronics."
"In 2009, our organization distributed a number of news releases and white papers quoting highly credible environmental groups and federal agencies on the risks associated with decaBDE which is contained in large quantities in iGPS plastic pallets," said Bruce Scholnick, President/CEO of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association. "We warned of the potential for those chemicals leaching into food, but iGPS convinced the food industry that their chemicals are 'encapsulated' and can't be transferred to the food. We hope that this most recent evidence of decaBDE-food contamination will serve as a wake-up call to the food industry."
iGPS plastic pallets are used almost exclusively by the food industry. The company lists household names like Quaker Tropicana Gatorade, Dole, Imperial Sugar, Mars, Pilgrims Pride, Campbell Soup, General Mills and, Kraft among their pallet customers.
"Pallets are treated roughly in warehouse and material handling conditions," said Scholnick. "They are scraped across floors, gouged by forklifts and dropped from the back of trucks onto loading docks. Plastic pallets end up with fine layers of dust, likely containing decaBDE. Those pallets are then piled with produce, dairy and manufactured food products."
DecaBDE is also showing up in our water. In April 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report documenting that flame retardants are now in all U.S. coastal waters and the Great Lakes in increasing concentrations. John H. Dunnigan, NOAA assistant administrator of the National Ocean Service said: "Scientific evidence strongly documents that these contaminants impact the food web and action is needed to reduce the threats posed to aquatic resources and human health."
"I'm not saying that plastic pallets are the source of the chemical contaminants in the butter, but I am encouraging further testing of food that is transported on these pallets," said Scholnick. "This time of year households around the country are baking butter-laden cookies and cakes. Are families eating flame retardant-filled cupcakes? We should know."
"Regardless of how this chemical got into the butter – whether from plastic pallets or butter wrappers – decaBDE has no place in the food supply chain. A zero tolerance policy should be the goal of every food producer in this country."