Wildlife on every continent are contaminated with harmful flame-retardant chemicals, including some endangered species such as killer whales, northern sea otters, red pandas and chimpanzees, according to a new map that tracks peer-reviewed studies from around the world.
Flame-retardants — used in products like furniture, building materials, electronics and cars to meet flammability rules — can leach out and get into the environment, and eventually wildlife and people. Researchers have found both phased-out flame-retardants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and replacement chemicals like chlorinated paraffins and organophosphate flame-retardants in wildlife. Flame-retardant exposure is linked to a host of health issues including decreased fertility, certain cancers, endocrine disruption, impaired fetal and child development, and immune system impacts.
The map, made by the Green Science Policy Institute, “illustrates the global consequences of repeatedly replacing harmful flame retardants with others that turn out to be similarly harmful,” project lead Lydia Jahl, a scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute, said in a statement. Jahl and colleauges pointed to the example of the black-spotted frogs living near electronic-waste facilities in China. Scientists found chlorinated paraffins are linked to shrinking livers in the frogs and the chemicals can be transferred to their eggs.
However, it wasn’t just animals living near waste sites—high levels of flame retardants were found in chimpanzees in a protected Ugandan National Park for example.
“Killer whales shouldn’t have to swim in a sea of flame retardants. The science is clear that these chemicals harm their development—as well as that of our children,” Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, said in a statement. “We need to update ineffective flammability standards to stop these toxics from entering the environment, wild animals, and us.”
Researchers have found that flame-retardants often don’t work as designed and unnecessarily expose us and wildlife to harmful chemicals without the benefits of fire protection.
“Instead of this endless cycle of regrettable substitutions, we need to evaluate whether many of the flammability standards that drive the use of flame retardants are even helpful. Some standards—such as California’s old furniture standard—have already been proven ineffective and revised,” Jahl said. “Many more wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny either, and they are wreaking havoc on wildlife and people alike.”
See the full map here.