The levels of flame retardant chemicals in baby food from the U.S. and China are well below levels considered unsafe, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA). In fact, the levels of flame retardants in baby food are lower than those in other foods such as meats, dairy products, and even human breast milk. The first-of-its-kind study also found that flame retardant levels were comparable between baby food in the U.S. and in China, a country that has been riddled with food safety scandals in recent years, including a 2008 incident involving milk and infant formula adulterated with melamine, which resulted in 54,000 illnesses in infants and 13 deaths. Flame retardants are persistent chemicals found in electronics, plastics and textiles that keep the materials from easily catching fire. The compounds, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have gained heightened media attention in recent years for their presence in the foam cushions of couches, chairs and mattresses. Essentially, they’re everywhere. Small concentrations have even been found in polar bears in the Arctic, according to Dr. Ronald Hites, distinguished professor at Indiana University’s SPEA and co-author of the study. Along with passing through to humans who sit on these materials or use products containing flame retardants, the chemicals accumulate in food. In turn, we absorb whatever chemicals are found in the food we eat. Just this week, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) announced he would be proposing legislation to ban 10 flame retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture and children’s products, citing evidence that high levels of exposure have been linked to developmental delays and cancer. But scientists still have a limited understanding of what levels pose a threat to children or adults, Hites said. “Nobody really knows what a dangerous level is,” he told Food Safety News. “No one knows how to do the toxicology on these things.” What is known is that the levels of flame retardants in baby food are well below any levels at which adverse effects can be observed. Hites said that the study was conducted to see how the levels of flame retardants in U.S. baby food would compare to that of China’s. “What was surprising to me was that the levels of all these food types were about the same. They weren’t statistically different,” he said. The study compared canned infant formula, cereals and pureed baby food from both countries. In general, the levels were similar, though researchers found high concentrations of Dechlorane Plus in one Chinese formula sample and one American cereal sample. By comparison, breast milk in American and Canadian women tends to be slightly higher in flame retardants than breast milk from elsewhere in the world, including Europe and China. Why? Because there are more products containing flame retardants in the U.S. and Canada. “Europeans don’t need cushions on their seats — they’ll sit on a wooden board,” Hites joked. “Really, it’s just the marketplace. The U.S. is the biggest marketplace for products containing these compounds.” But he wasn’t suggesting women stop feeding women breast milk, either. The health benefits of breast milk still outweigh any risk posed by minor amounts of chemicals. Now the chemical industry is creating alternatives to these well-established flame retardants. However, the long-term effects of the new chemicals might not be known for decades, Hites warned. “There could be completely unintended consequences,” he said. “That tends to always be the problem when we release something into the environment that’s extremely persistent.”