Flame retardants ‘widely detected’ in U.S. breast milk, study shows

New research sheds light on the presence of potentially harmful chemicals known as brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in breast milk. These compounds, commonly used to reduce fire hazards, have been shown to accumulate in the body, resist breakdown, and may interfere with thyroid function and reproductive health, as well as brain development in infants.

As with the discovery of PFAS in breast milk before, the findings highlight the need for more regulation around these types of “forever chemicals” in order to help limit exposure. 

Led by researchers at Emory University, the University of Washington, and Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the Seattle-based organization Toxic Free Future, the pre-print study focused on breast milk samples from 50 mothers around the country to assess current exposure levels to BFRs and their impact on breast milk contamination. 

More than 25 different types of BFRs of various levels were detected in every sample of breast milk tested. BFRs are largely used in televisions casings and other electronics, and humans can be exposed to them through accidental ingestion and skin absorption of household dust and food consumption, the authors write.

Though a well-studied BFR group known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) was phased out of production over a decade ago due to concerns over health risks, the compounds were discovered in 100% of samples tested, albeit at at lower concentrations compared to past studies, the authors noted. 

While this may sound like progress, the study also revealed the emergence of other BFRs, including bromophenols, in a staggering 88% of the samples. These bromophenols have structures similar to thyroid hormones, raising red flags about potential impacts on thyroid function and infant development.

“These results represent the first measurement of bromophenols and other replacement flame retardants in breast milk from U.S. mothers. In addition, these results provide data on current PBDE contamination in human milk, as PBDEs were last measured in U.S. breast milk ten years ago. The presence of phased-out PBDEs, bromophenols, and other current-use flame retardants in breast milk reflects ongoing prenatal exposure and increased risk for adverse impacts on infant development,” write the authors. 

Related: High levels of BPA found in sports bras, according to new report

When breastfeeding, the benefits outweigh the risks

You can trust that breast milk remains an essential source of nutrition for infants. (Previous studies have even shown low levels of PBDEs in formula, too.) Even with the potential of flame retardant or PFAS exposure, breast milk is still a highly protective and beneficial food for your infant—the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. A separate 2023 study among 10 million U.S. infants between the years of 2016 and 2018 found that breastfeeding in the first year of life is associated with a 33% reduction in infant mortality, highlighting the protective benefits breast milk offers.

More monitoring, regulation needed for BFRs

As with the discovery of widespread PFAS in breast milk, these findings on BFRs highlight the need for continued monitoring and regulation of flame retardant chemicals to protect maternal and child health. The discovery in the early 2000s of high levels of PBDEs in breast milk led to the phaseout of these chemicals before, and it could happen again.

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“In 2003, unexpectedly high levels of PBDEs were found in breast milk of 20 U.S. mothers, leading manufacturers to voluntarily withdraw the penta- and octa-BDE formulations and driving state bans of all PBDE formulations,” write the authors. “A rapid decline in use of penta- and octa-BDE followed, and manufacturers ultimately came to an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 to phase out most uses of the deca-BDE formulation by the end of 2012.” 

As manufacturers phased out PBDEs, they introduced other BFRs as replacements, some of which belong to the class of bromophenols. These compounds hadn’t been as well-studied as PBDEs. But now, states are starting to ban the new class of chemical compounds due to rising concerns about their safety. 

The European Union and New York state have banned the use of BFRs in television and electronic display enclosures, and Washington state has banned their use in enclosures for all indoor electric and electronic products. Apple and HP, along with other makers, are starting to restrict the use of BFRs in their products. As awareness about BFRs exposure grows, it’s likely that more restrictions will be put in place.

Related: PFAS exposure may significantly affect male fertility

How to reduce your exposure to BFRs

In the meantime, there are ways to reduce your potential exposure to BFRs. Here are some practical tips.

  • Choose BFR-free products: Opt for products that are labeled as “BFR-free” or “flame-retardant-free.” Look for alternatives that use safer fire-retardant technologies or natural materials that don’t contain BFRs.
  • Avoid some second-hand products: Be cautious when purchasing second-hand items like furniture, electronics, and toys, as older products may contain higher levels of BFRs. If possible, choose new products with updated flame-retardant standards.
  • Properly ventilate indoor spaces: Open windows and use fans to improve indoor air circulation, as BFRs can be released into the air and accumulate in indoor dust. Adequate ventilation can help reduce exposure.
  • Wash hands regularly: Encourage regular hand washing for both yourself and your children, especially after touching electronics.
  • Vacuum with HEPA Filters and use a HEPA air filter: Use a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to trap dust particles, and run an indoor HEPA air filter, as this can help reduce BFRs and other contaminants in your home.

To take further action, support organizations and initiatives working towards stricter regulations on BFRs and other harmful forever chemicals. Even on a small scale, your voice—and your purchase decisions—can make a difference in promoting a healthier living environment for everyone.


Kohn E, Efreim S, Lubetzky R, et al. P53 Exposure of infants to brominated flame retardants through breast-milk. Archives of Disease in Childhood 2019;104:e39. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2019-esdppp.91

Schreder E, Zheng G, Sathyanarayana S, Gunaje N, Hu M, Salamova A. Brominated flame retardants in breast milk from the United States: First detection of bromophenols in U.S. breast milk [published online ahead of print, 2023 Jun 12]. Environ Pollut. 2023;334:122028. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2023.122028 

Ware JL, Li R, Chen A, Nelson JM, Kmet JM, Parks SE, Morrow AL, Chen J, Perrine CG. Associations Between Breastfeeding and Post-perinatal Infant Deaths in the US. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2023 May 21. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2023.05.015

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