"Here's what I was thinking for the Observer," researcher Arnold Schecter says when I reach him by phone to discuss his latest findings. "You could say: Do you want flame retardant in your Christmas cookies?"
Since some Observer readers might, it's relevant that Schecter discovered 10 samples of butter purchased at five Dallas grocery stores were contaminated with small amounts of the flame retardant PBDE. According to Schecter, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, persistent organic pollutants such as PDBE have been linked with an "increase in health problems, including cancer and death."
"Flame retardants don't belong in butter," Schecter says.
Schecter and his colleagues in the early 2000s studied the breast milk of 31 Dallas mothers and found varying levels of PBDEs in 30 of the samples. The question the team then set out to solve was how man-made PBDEs -- polybrominated diphenyl ethers -- got into people. For three years, the researchers investigated various foods, including meats and dairy products. PBDEs showed up in all of the butters tested, but the 10th sample proved especially startling.
"One of the butters was extremely high, way higher than anything we'd ever seen," Schecter says. "It was like looking at nine people who weigh 50 pounds each, and one person who weighed 300 pounds. It was just that striking."
The lab had saved the butter's wrapper, and further research showed the PBDEs were even higher in the paper. Although PBDEs have been banned in the United States, they're still used in China and have a tendency to hang around: Contamination could have been introduced at the dairy farm, where cows eat feed made from other animals, a possible PBDE source. Or there might have been a fire at the factory where the paper wrapper was produced. Schecter says the company responsible for the butter -- which researchers have agreed not to name, since other butters could also be contaminated -- is still investigating the incident.
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Schecter believes the federal government should more carefully monitor man-made chemicals in the food supply, much as it tests for E.coli and other bacteria.
"There does not appear to be any government agency sampling American food for chemical contamination," Schecter says. "It seems to me, unless the size of government is cut significantly following the recent election, they have the responsibility and resources to start doing more systematic surveys."
Schetcter says he'd probably still eat Butter No. 10, which he says acquired the notoriety of Client 9 -- Elliot Spitzer's code name in an FBI document -- around his lab.
"Assuming I'm an average adult male, I'm not so worried," he says, adding PBDEs pose a greater risk to fetuses, infants and eaters with compromised immune systems. "But if I had my choice, I'd rather the government kept No. 10 from occurring."