Chemicals in the Butter

Dr. Arnold Schecter, professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, led a research team that discovered “extremely” high levels of a flame retardant in some supermarket butter in Dallas, Texas. “Flame retardants do not belong in food and do not belong in butter,” he says.

contaminated butterThis is the first known incidence of PBDE (or polybrominated diphenyl ether) contamination of U.S. butter, according to the study, which was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in February 2011.

“Our study told us that of the 10 samples we bought at local supermarkets, nine of the ten had low levels of flame retardant,” says Schecter. “The second thing it told us was that one sample had extremely high levels of one type of flame retardant and it had this contamination from the wrapping paper. It was startling to see that the PBDE levels were very much higher in butter samples [than thought],” he says, comparing his results to those of previous tests. “We expected to see 19 units of one type of flame retardant and instead we found 37,700 units in the butter and 614,000 in the wrapper.”

PBDEs have been associated with a number of damaging health effects including cancer and endocrine (or hormonal) disruptions in children that may cause lower IQs or emotional problems based on animal and human studies.

According to national health data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly all of us have one type of PBDE in our blood; 60% of us have an additional four PBDEs. Levels of detectable PBDEs in breastmilk have gone up significantly, too.

Schecter says he does not suggest that consumers stop buying butter since they found high levels of flame retardant in only one sample, and he did not do a large representative sample of butter across the U.S. President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in December 2010. Asked if the new law would affect PBDEs, Douglas Karas, a Food and Drug Administration spokesperson said in an e-mail, “There are no plans, currently, to require manufacturers to test for PBDEs in food.”