- Researchers recently mapped more than 150 species of wild animals across every continent contaminated with flame retardant chemicals.
- These chemicals are added to furniture, electronics and vehicles but routinely escape such products and are found in the blood of wildlife species such as baboons, chimpanzees, and red colobus monkeys with unknown effects, but in humans these exposures are associated with lower IQs, reduced fertility, and an elevated risk of cancer.
- “Even though we lack data on flame retardants in wildlife from most tropical areas with high levels of biodiversity, the findings from Uganda strongly suggest that wildlife in other tropical ecosystems are probably affected as well,” a new op-ed states in arguing for a rapid reduction in their use.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.
It started with monkey poop. A few years ago we analyzed the feces of wild baboons, chimpanzees, red-tailed monkeys, and red colobus in Uganda and found unexpectedly high levels of flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals are added to furniture, electronics, vehicles, and other products – how are they ending up in primates living in protected forests of Africa?
Now our colleagues at the Green Science Policy Institute have uncovered further evidence of the astonishingly widespread impact of these chemicals on wildlife. Based on peer-reviewed research, they mapped more than 150 species of wild animals across every continent contaminated with flame retardants. Polluted wildlife includes killer whales, red pandas, chimpanzees and other endangered species.
Because flame retardants are not usually bound to the products to which they are added, they inevitably escape into air and on particles and make their way to us and animals, both pets and wildlife. One group of animals that can be particularly affected are primates, like monkeys and apes. They can come into contact with flame retardants through the air they breathe and the food they eat. These flame retardants can travel far and wide, reaching even protected areas, like Kibale National Park, far from large cities or industrial activity.
Kibale, like many other protected tropical forests, is not isolated from human activity: it has active research and tourism camps and is surrounded by villages and agricultural activity, including tea plantations and farms. The nearest town, Fort Portal, has a population of 60,000. As an island of forest within a sea of human activity, some primates in the park travel outside the forest to find food in nearby farms while others may forage through human trash. These behaviors put them at a higher risk of being exposed to harmful chemicals, including flame retardants. The two research and tourist camps within the park could also be sources of pollution as some of the furniture and equipment there may contain old flame-retardant materials, which can release these chemicals into the environment.
Exposure to flame retardant chemicals has been linked to harmful effects such as developmental issues, neurological problems, and disruptions in reproduction in laboratory studies of animal models. In humans, a group of flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) has been associated with lower IQ levels, reduced fertility, and an elevated risk of cancer. Although we have yet to document immediate, direct impacts on wild primates from these chemicals, when we consider the collective evidence from other research, documenting exposure raises concerns about the effects of flame retardants in protected areas where endangered primates live.
While the map shows widespread pollution of wildlife populations from the Arctic to the Antarctic, the map also highlights an important gap: data from many other locations with high levels of biodiversity such as in Indonesia, the Amazon, and the Congo Basin. The missing data are due to insufficient resources, both financial and of personnel, needed to take these measurements in the Global South, where most biodiversity resides. For example, Kibale National Park is known for its high diversity and abundance of primates, but little data exist on flame retardants in this area or neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo which contains most of the Congo Basin.
Let’s be clear: even though we lack data on flame retardants in wildlife from most tropical areas with high levels of biodiversity, including biodiversity hotspots, the findings from Uganda strongly suggest that wildlife in other tropical ecosystems are probably affected as well. This is concerning because in addition to causing the health problems mentioned above, flame retardants can also impair the health of wildlife populations by leading to greater susceptibility to disease, which in turn threatens their existence. This mechanism is believed to play a role in the mass deaths of some whale populations heavily affected by pollution.
This data gap doesn’t call for more action from science: rather than collecting more data to support the hypothesis that other wildlife populations are highly exposed to these chemicals, we should turn our attention to reducing those exposures: the most immediate and effective solution is to revise obsolete flammability standards that require the use of chemicals to reduce the flammability of products. In 2013, a flammability standard in California was updated to allow furniture manufacturers to replace dangerous and persistent chemicals with alternative approaches like naturally fire-retardant physical barriers. The legislative change promoted industry innovation to find alternatives to keep products safe, sustainable, and cost-effective.
We should also avoid introducing new flammability standards if they require the use of harmful chemicals. In the case of electronics, for example, additional standards requiring the use of flame retardants would not only create potential harm to human health and the environment but also create a problem at the end-of-life of these products. The presence of flame retardants in the casings of these products make the recycling of the plastics more complicated, if not impossible, and may contribute to higher levels of flame retardants in the primates of Kibale National Park and other biodiverse regions in the future.
It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at risks and benefits of flame retardant chemicals in consumer products. The benefits in too many cases are minimal, and the risks are massive.
Marta Venier is an environmental chemist and Assistant Professor at the Paul O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Michael Wasserman is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Human Biology, P.I. of the Primate Environmental Endocrinology Lab (PEEL), and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Animal Behavior Program at Indiana University Bloomington.
See related coverage of these researchers’ findings:
Tropical mammals under rising chemical pollution pressure, study warns