george_191 This is my cat, George. He is fat and grouchy, but I love him. He likes to sun himself on the patio.

This is a link to Sightline’s research on PBDEs, toxic flame retardants. A couple of years ago, we conducted a study of PBDEs and found high concentrations in the breast milk of nursing mothers throughout the Pacific Northwest. It was bad news.

And what’s the connection to George? Well, new scientific research shows that PBDEs are making house cats sick. (Major hat tip here to Lisa Stiffler, ace environmental reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who covers the story in her blog today.)

From a summary of the study:

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PBDE concentrations in blood serum of the 23 house cats participating in the study were 20-100 times higher than the median levels of PBDEs in people living in North America, who have been shown to have the world’s highest human PBDE levels.

PBDEs are long-lived. They’re found in foam cushions, TVs, computers, carpet pads, curtains, you name it. It’s thought that we humans get our exposure to PBDEs through house dust, which often includes crumbled bits of foam and other goodies. Same goes for cats: researchers believe that felines, with their obsessive-compulsive grooming, are literally lapping up the toxic compound. And many cats (George included) eat a lot of fish, which tends to have high concentrations of toxics, too.

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In any case, PBDEs are bad news. Research suggests that they can impair brain development, learning, memory, and behavior. They also retard thyroid functioning, and that’s what’s happening to cats.

Cats are now the only mammal other than humans to suffer from high incidences of hyperthyroidism. The affliction was unknown in cats 35 years ago; now it’s common. And that timeline coincides exactly with the introduction of PBDEs into household products.

Unfortunately, the news gets even worse. Remember how I said that PBDE levels in cats are off the charts? Well, there’s this, from the study:

… young children are exposed to far more dust than older people. Cats’ meticulous and continuous grooming habits could conceivably result in PBDE uptake similar to what toddlers are exposed to through their increased contact with floors and "mouthing" behaviors … "

In other words, in the proverbial coal mine of PBDE exposure … cats are the new canaries.

UPDATE: More coverage in today’s P-I, including something important that I forgot in my cat-blogging fury:

This spring, Washington became the first state to ban the use of all forms of PBDEs in mattresses beginning next year. A ban on their use in televisions, computers and residential furniture will be enacted in 2011 provided a safer, technically feasible substitute is found for making the items fireproof.