Flame retardant pollution threatens wildlife on all continents, research finds

More than a hundred species of wildlife found across every continent are contaminated with highly toxic flame retardants, and the pollution is probably responsible for population declines in some species, a new analysis of published research shows.

The dangerous chemicals have been detected in everything from sea urchins to bobcats to Arctic foxes, and at alarming levels in endangered species such as red pandas, chimpanzees and killer whales.

The analysis examined about 20 years of flame retardant research and includes an interactive map showing the location and type of animal found to be contaminated. It brings into sharp focus the breadth of flame retardant pollution and dangers it poses.

The paper’s lead author, Lydia Jahl, said she expected to find widespread contamination, but was “still blown away by the sheer number of studies finding harmful levels of all sorts of flame retardants everywhere”.

“It’s heartbreaking that human advancement doesn’t take health impacts into account for ourselves and for wildlife,” she said. “The people who pollute are not the most impacted – it’s fenceline communities, turtles, dolphins, foxes and butterflies.”

Several chemical classes are utilized as flame retardants and in an effort to help reduce fire risks are added to thousands of consumer products from furniture to electronics to auto interiors.

The paper found high levels of phased-out flame retardants like PCBs and PBDEs, as well as allegedly safe, newer replacements chemicals, such as chlorinated paraffins and organophosphates, across the globe. All are thought to be toxic and various compounds are linked to liver, thyroid and kidney cancers, while others harm IQ, attention and memory in children.

Many of the same health problems found in humans also affect animals, Jahl said.

“This is a really unfortunate side-effect from something that is supposed to protect us from fires,” she added.

Most flame retardants are highly persistent in the environment and can take decades to degrade. Because of their resilience, they can accumulate in animals, and as larger predators eat smaller organisms, the chemicals accumulate in higher quantities further up the food chain.

The highest levels have been found in large marine mammals and birds of prey, and the chemicals are suspected of decimating killer whales’ population because they do so much harm to the species’ calves and immune systems. Some research predicts the chemicals could wipe out half the world’s killer whale population.

The chemicals were found at extremely high levels in black-spotted frogs living near electronic-waste facilities in China, and appear to be shrinking the animals’ livers and harming their eggs.

Flame retardants are also highly mobile and travel long distances through water and air. Research found high levels in chimpanzees in a protected Ugandan national park deep in Africa’s interior, far from a flame retardant production or disposal site.

The issue is all the more frustrating to environmental health advocates because flame retardants have generally been found to be ineffective in most applications, and are based on 1970s standards. There was little data on the chemicals’ effectiveness and toxicity at the time, Jahl said, and the requirements were put in place when more flammable materials were used, and more people smoked.

Some states and countries have started eliminating or revising flammability standards, and ending unnecessary uses of flame retardants. Once in the environment, the chemicals are extremely difficult to clean up because they are widespread in the soil, air, water and most human and animal blood.

Though the standards “may seem protective at first glance, many cause widespread and lasting harm for no real benefit”, Jahl said.

“In general these are outdated standards that don’t have data behind them, but lead to pervasive flame retardant usage, and that’s how it gets into animals worldwide,” she added.

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This article by Tom Perkins was first published by The Guardian on 18 October 2023. Lead Image: Species at the top of the food chain are particularly at risk. Some research predicts the chemicals could wipe out half the world’s killer whales. Photograph: Cavan Images/Alamy.

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