New research shows that flame retardants designed to break down faster might be just as bad for wildlife.
Flame retardants are the chemicals in furniture, electronics, home insulation, and other household items meant to keep them from catching on fire. After it was found that some flame retardants can build up in living tissues, alternatives were developed.
Indiana University chemist Marta Venier says these new chemicals may not stick around as long, but they’re at such high levels in bald eagles that they’re likely just as harmful.
“There is this trend of what we call the whack-a-mole game of replacing one molecule with another which is very similar,” she says.
What’s more, Venier says once the chemical has broken down inside the eagle’s body, it could be even more toxic to the bird.
The study focused on bald eagles because their numbers have been growing since the pesticide DDT was banned in the U.S., but their recovery has been slowed by flame retardants and other pollutants.
Flame retardants don't just cause health problems for bald eagles, however. They can cause issues for people and other wildlife as well. According to the National Institutes of Health, historic flame retardants have been linked to hormonal and development problems, issues with the immune and reproductive systems, cancer, and can affect babies in the womb.
Venier says not much is known about how safe these alternative flame retardants might be. Some studies suggest they could harm fetuses by disrupting normal hormone function or even cause cancer. What's worrisome is that we don't know how toxic they are, yet Venier says these chemicals seem to be everywhere.
"We've measured them in air, in water, fish, eagles, indoors, outdoors — wherever we measure them, we find them," she says.
In 2014, the state of California rewrote a law stating that furniture makers no longer have to add flame retardants to their products. The law cited studies that suggested flame retardants might not work as advertised.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.