One year ago, Michele Hammond and her husband, Jeremiah Holland, sat together at their dining room table, contemplating some frightening lab results for their two children.

Their son, Rowan, a rambunctious, towheaded toddler, had some of the highest levels of flame retardants in his blood of anyone measured on Earth.

And their daughter, 5-year-old Mikaela, was close behind.

The question at the time was whether these children were unique: Did something in their home or life lead to such unusual numbers, or might most children have higher-than-expected levels?

It is hard to say, because even today Rowan and Mikaela remain the only two young children in the United States to have been tested for such compounds.

A year later, however, new exposure estimates and more data about these chemicals in our environment make the answer clear: They are not alone.

The science suggests that for this flame retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, levels in children throughout the United States are higher and possibly much higher than their parents.

And parents, particularly in California, already have the most flame-retardant blood in the world, so high the most-exposed are near levels causing fertility and sexual defects in lab rats, according to one analysis.

"What we are seeing here is very serious," said Ake Bergman, professor of environmental chemistry at Stockholm University in Sweden and one of the first scientists to alert the world to the threat posed by PBDEs.

"If in fact you have exposure the first few years that is exceeding the parents' exposures, this may have this may have implications for brain development."

A year later The Berkeley family was part of a newspaper investigation of our "body burden" a chemical legacy, picked up from our possessions and imprinted in our brain, blood and fat cells.

Scientists suspect synthetic chemicals plastic, flame retardants, pesticides, even the chemical precursors for nonstick frying pans taint the blood of everyone alive today.

It's the result, they say, of nearly 50 years of reliance on synthetic chemistry without a full understanding of how these compounds interact with our environment.

The amount of these chemicals in our bodies is vanishingly small; so minuscule scientists had trouble seeing it just 10 years ago. Now researchers suspect some of the compounds impair our health.

The Oakland Tribune tested the Hammond-Hollands for traces of five metals and four classes of chemicals: PBDEs; their banned cousins, the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs; plastic additives known as phthalates; and an exotic chemical family, perfluorinated acids, used to make Gore-Tex, Teflon and other nonstick and waterproof products.

The investigation found all but arsenic in their hair, blood or urine. In many cases, the children's concentrations were higher than the parents'. But the PBDE results confronting the Hammond-Hollands at the dinner table went far beyond what even scientists expected.

PBDEs are a family of chemicals astonishingly effective at slowing fire in foam and plastic.

They permeate everything from seat cushions and drapes to carpet padding, TV sets and computer casings. National demand was 36,500 tons in 2001, nearly 80 percent of the world market and almost double demand in 1990.

The fear among scientists is that they act like PCBs, the banned electrical insulator known to linger for years in the body and cause brain, thyroid, kidney and liver damage. Levels have leapt exponentially in humans during the past 20 years, doubling and then doubling again.

Banning compounds
Europe banned the source of compounds in 2001. California and several other states followed starting in 2003.

The amount of PBDEs in Michele and Jeremiah was fairly normal for Californians about 100 parts-per-billion. A typical level in the United States is closer to 40 ppb, but in California with stricter fire safety laws the norm sits closer to 80 ppb, according to recent state data.

For perspective, a bucket of popcorn salted at such a concentration has just one-third of a grain of salt.

The two children, however, landed in a class by themselves. Mikaela measured 500 ppb. Rowan had nearly 700 ppb.

For Jeremiah and Michele, news that those figures may not be unusual comes as relief. For the rest of us, scientists say, the information becomes a concern of unknown but worrisome proportions.

Some recent findings:

  • Children likely ingest 100 times the PBDEs their parents do, based on a Canadian model published this summer.

  • Breast milk is a major pipeline for these chemicals. Many of the PBDEs concentrate in fat.

    Using estimates published earlier this year, 21/2-year-old Rowan, who still breast-feeds, likely gets 130 ppb PBDEs from his mother every day. Not all gets absorbed. For newborns, the number would be even higher though with the effects of PBDEs so uncertain and the benefits of breast milk so clear, scientists strongly urge mothers to continue breast-feeding their babies.

    And although researchers see big differences between the body burdens of breast-fed and nonbreast- fed infants, that difference diminishes rapidly as they grow and is gone completely by their teens, Birnbaum said.

    .House dust is a huge reservoir of PBDEs, for reasons not fully understood. And young children such as Mikaela and Rowan ingest twice as much dust as adults, according to EPA estimates. Adjusted for their smaller bodies, that means children take in nearly 10 times the PBDEs as their elders, pound for pound.

  • Levels continue to rise, particularly in the United States. Seventeen years ago, the typical level in the nation was 5 ppb. Samples from the late 1990s put California's norm at 42 ppb, half its present-day mark.

    In May, scientists reported that two adults picked at random in New York had the highest concentrations ever found in a human: one at 4,000 ppb, the other at almost 10,000 ppb.

  • Those levels, particularly for the highest exposed, exceed concentrations harming animals.

    A study published last month by Tom McDonald, a former toxicologist with the California Environmental Protection Agency, examined the body burdens of animals showing defects from PBDE exposure.

    He concluded rats start to see impaired male fertility and ovary cell development at 230 ppb, behavioral change at 660 ppb and dampened thyroid activity at 5,700 ppb.

  • The Tribune s study buttresses this notion that children are most at risk. The initial results were so high the family was retested. In both instances, Mikaela was twice as high as her parents for the five mostcommon PBDE "congeners" found in blood. Rowan was twice as high as his sister.

    Only one other study, in Norway, has looked at the very young; it found children had two to three times the body burden of adults.

    "Kids are higher than adults," said Kim Hooper, research supervisor at CalEPA's Hazardous Materials Laboratory. "The culture of science begs that it be repeated, but I think it's going to be true. I don't think these are unusual kids."

    Can breast-feeding be harmful?
    Friday morning at the New School in Berkeley, where, despite a teacher's cajoles to play outside, an unseasonable chill keeps all 2-year-olds cooped indoors.

    So it's a bit chaotic when Dahlia Wilson suddenly flies off her feet and lands hard. Tears fly, too, and all eyes turn to Rowan, standing nearby with the impish look of someone who knows he just broke every preschool rule in the book.

    Half a lifetime ago, Rowan fell off his doctor's weight charts, falling below the zero percentile for children his age. He's always been small, always been a bit unruly, Michele says.

    She thought nothing of it until she learned long-term exposure to PBDEs disrupts the thyroid gland in lab animals.

    Today, though, she's not worried. She's angry. Angry that her breast milk and that of every mother has a whiff of contamination about it.

    "It's sad I have to even ponder that I might be damaging my child by breastfeeding," she said. "Why do I have to feel there's anything negative about breast milk?"

    Industry maintains current levels pose no threat. What we've seen in the past year, said John Kyte, North American program director for the industryfunded Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, is a lot of new information about levels of the chemical in our environment, but little on what that means for our health.

    "Some folks want to draw the conclusion that detection equals danger. That is not a scientifically supportable equation," he said. "It's an evolving issue, and there's more to be done, but we're not seeing evidence (of harm)."

    But this is not a problem unique to PBDEs.

    Phthalates, commonly used to soften plastics and dissolve fragrances into shampoos and perfumes, appear to concentrate more highly in children and, perhaps not surprisingly, women, based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.

    In a small, controversial study published in May, a University of Rochester professor of obstetrics and gynecology found shortened distance between the anus and penis of boys born to mothers with the highest concentrations of phthalates.

    Shortened anogenital distance, when adjusted for weight, is considered a sign of demasculinization and a potential harbinger of other, more subtle, defects. It also shows up in the offspring of rodents fed phthalates in lab tests.

    Industry strongly disputes such findings and in the past year has successfully killed efforts to learn more or ban these compounds from products.

    In June, Michele and Jeremiah were two of the three people invited to testify before the Legislature on a bill to establish a state program to identify the levels of such compounds in Californians.

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed that bill, saying it provided only a "partial snapshot" of our body burdens without "proper context of what the presence of (a) specific chemical means or how it interacts with other health factors." It is the same argument industry used in its opposition to the measure.

    And not just industry. Sandy Walsh is president of the California Breast Cancer Organizations.

    She opposed the bill. The science is uncertain. Resources scarce. Put the money, she said, into a more effective search for what ails us.

    "Nobody knows how to use this data. You get a single data point at a point in time. It's a huge expense, . . . and we have no idea what it means."

    Jeremiah and Michele, perhaps the only Californians to know the amount of flame retardants contaminating their family, are still amazed.

    "Even if you don't know what the PBDEs are going to do to you, I just don't understand not wanting to know what's in your body," said Jeremiah. "I just see no rationale for not wanting to know the rates of exposures in Californians."

    No time to worry
    Dinner time at the Hammond- Hollands' Berkeley home.

    As the kids systematically dismantle the living room, Jeremiah unwraps a butcher-paperwrapped package of beef simply labeled "chuck" he's had defrosting in the fridge for two days.

    Inside is a thick roast, not the ground beef he needs for tonight's meatloaf.

    He has an hour, maybe less, before the kids melt down. Jeremiah gets on the phone, hoping to catch Michele while she's still at the grocery store.

    Like parents everywhere, the Hammond-Hollands take every step they can to protect their kids. They eat organic. They bought a wool rug after learning their test results, replacing an older synthetic one they feared was leaching chemicals.

    What they don't have is time. Time to worry about what's in their plastics, their cologne, their shampoos. Time to find out what may be leaching out of their mattress, their cordless phone, the inside of their car.

    Some 15 million adults in the United States never mind children, where data are nonexistent are thought to have levels as high as Rowan and Mikaela.

    And the only reason they're not worried is because they don't know.

    "If you're looking at the most highly exposed, there is no margin of safety," said Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist studying PBDEs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    "They are at the point where you might see problems."

    Jeremiah and Michele have concluded individuals can't solve this problem. Government needs to step in. And so far, in their eyes, government has failed.

    "The solution is not for everyone to go out and buy a wool rug," Jeremiah said. "The solution is not to be made by individuals in the market. The solution is to first collect data on exposure and then, hopefully, successfully ban chemicals that we know are bioaccumulating and are persistent in the fat of our bodies."

    Contact Douglas Fischer at dfischer@angnewspapers.com.