WHAT IT MEANS: Unless you're worried that flammable butter may be the next source of a house fire, these results should be concerning. "This certainly points out that you can get toxic chemicals in your food—and every so often get really high levels—and no government agency is systematically checking or even periodically checking to see if they're there," Dr. Schecter says. "We're also talking about reducing the size of government, which worries me because food isn't being inspected enough as it is."
It isn't so much that butter has high levels of synthetic flame retardants or that canned food has too much BPA that concerns Dr. Schecter. "If there were only one chemical, I wouldn’t be that worried, but if you're talking about perhaps dozens of chemicals in food products, then I become concerned," he says. Previous studies have shown butter to be contaminated with everything from PBDEs to DDT, and when those chemicals combine, their collective health effects can have an even greater impact than if they existed alone. Take brain damage, says Dr. Schecter. PBDEs have been linked to learning disorders in young children. If PBDEs were to get into fish, they might mix with mercury, which also causes brain damage, or BPA, which causes learning and behavioral disorders—or both. "If all these chemicals cause the same kind of problem, then you start to get concerned," he says.
It's hard to avoid the chemical cocktails that seem to keep cropping up in our food supply. Most of the progress needs to be addressed at the regulatory level, Dr. Schecter says, and government agencies should start testing food to, at the very least, figure out what the sources of contamination are.
But there are a few steps you can take:
• Opt for minimally packaged food. Whether it's BPA in cans or flame retardants in butter wrappers, one obvious source of chemical contamination is food packaging. Look for products packaged in glass (which is totally inert), and buy fresh produce, which you can take home in reusable cloth produce bags.
• Call your congressmen. Because of procedural mistakes, the Senate-passed food safety bill is still in legislative limbo. The House still has to approve its version and send it back to the Senate, which means there's a small window of time during which your House representatives may be open to the idea of banning the use of BPA in cans. That won't do much to keep flame retardants out of butter, but it will help reduce your exposure to unwanted chemicals in your food.