The global prevalence of highly toxic flame retardants has been laid bare in a comprehensive analysis of over a hundred wildlife species across every continent. The research suggests that these hazardous chemicals, detected in creatures ranging from sea urchins to Arctic foxes, may be contributing to population declines in certain species.
The analysis, which spans two decades of flame retardant research, reveals alarming contamination levels in endangered animals such as red pandas, chimpanzees, and killer whales, underscoring the pervasive threat these chemicals pose.
Lead author Lydia Jahl expressed astonishment at the extensive contamination uncovered. The study categorises flame retardants into various chemical classes, including phased-out compounds like PCBs and PBDEs, as well as newer replacements such as chlorinated paraffins and organophosphates.
Despite differences in usage, all these chemicals are considered toxic, with various compounds linked to cancers of the liver, thyroid, and kidneys. Additionally, some compounds adversely impact the cognitive functions of children, including IQ, attention, and memory.
The ubiquitous application of flame retardants in products ranging from furniture to electronics to auto interiors contributes to their widespread presence in the environment. These chemicals exhibit high persistence, taking decades to degrade.
Consequently, they accumulate in animals over time, with larger predators ingesting higher quantities as they consume smaller organisms. This bioaccumulation effect is particularly pronounced in large marine mammals and birds of prey, posing a significant threat to their populations.
Killer whales, in particular, are susceptible to the harmful effects on their calves and immune systems, with predictions suggesting that these chemicals could potentially decimate half the global killer whale population.
Notably, flame retardants are not confined to specific regions; they are highly mobile, traveling long distances through water and air. Surprisingly, high levels of these chemicals were found in chimpanzees in a protected Ugandan national park, far removed from any flame retardant production or disposal site. The ability of these substances to traverse such distances underscores the global nature of the problem.
The frustration for environmental health advocates is compounded by the apparent ineffectiveness of flame retardants in many applications. Originating from standards established in the 1970s, when materials were more flammable and smoking was more prevalent, these regulations lack contemporary relevance.
Some states and countries have initiated efforts to eliminate or revise flammability standards, recognising the unnecessary use of flame retardants. However, once released into the environment, these chemicals prove challenging to eradicate due to their pervasive presence in soil, air, water, and the bloodstream of both humans and animals.
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