The Green Science Policy Institute just released a map that exposes the global footprint of flame retardants, found in all types of wildlife. These chemicals slowly leach out of products into the environment, leading to widespread exposure in wildlife and possible cancer, endocrine disruption, behavioral changes, and more health harms. These chemicals are also associated with similar human health problems.
The map follows an Environmental Working Group project that draws on more than 230 scientific studies to show the massive scale of PFAS contamination in more than 625 species across the globe. PFAS are incredibly persistent, never breaking down in the environment and remaining in the body for years. They’re known for causing significant health problems in humans, and the adverse impacts on wildlife are becoming ever-more apparent.
What these two mapping efforts show is that the unnecessary overuse of PFAS and flame retardants are polluting every corner of the world, and with that they’re creating additional dangers for the long-term survival of hundreds of species, many of which are already struggling to thrive and survive due to global warming, habitat loss, pesticide use, and poaching.
These projects show that it’s beyond time for regulators to swiftly advance policies that reduce pollution from flame retardants, PFAS, and other chemicals to protect people and wildlife.
The risks are extensively documented; flame retardant exposure in humans has been linked to endocrine disruption, neurodevelopmental effects, and some cancers. Yet these chemicals are still added to electronics, vehicles, and other products to help manufacturers meet outdated and often ineffective flammability standards. And whether in use or once disposed, they leach out these persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals.
PFAS are the fluorinated chemicals that include thousands of nonstick, stain-repellent, and waterproof compounds. They’re used in a staggering array of consumer products and commercial applications, from rain jackets and couches to dental floss and wire coatings. Decades of use and unchecked industrial release have resulted in contamination of water, soil and the blood of people and animals in the farthest corners of the world.
Exposure to PFAS is linked to harm to the immune system, disruptions in reproductive and fetal development, hormone disruption, and an increased risk of cancer. These human health risks are driving regulations and product changes across the globe. EWG recently published a paper detailing the incredible amount we know about how PFAS harm humans, and how we need to use that information and act now to reduce the chemicals’ threat to wildlife.
PFAS harms for wildlife include reducing the ability of alligators in North Carolina to heal from injuries and making Hawksbill turtles in the North Pacific less likely to emerge from their shells. Flame retardant harms for wildlife include reducing pair bonding in kestrels and increasing infectious disease susceptibility in Chinook salmon.
In many locations, wildlife face a dual threat from PFAS and flame retardants. PFAS in polar bears in East Greenland were linked to hormone disruption, while a number of flame retardants have been detected in the same population and are also linked to thyroid disruption. Black-spotted frog populations living near electronic waste recycling facilities in China have been found to contain PFAS and flame retardants called chlorinated paraffins, which wreak havoc on their livers. Bottlenose dolphins found off the coast of South Carolina have PFAS levels linked to immune dysfunction, while bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Florida are similarly polluted with flame retardants.
Hundreds of other species are contaminated with one or more harmful chemicals, though in reality, most wildlife is likely affected by dozens to hundreds of manmade chemicals.
This human-made problem can be fixed.
Earlier this year, authors from Green Science Policy Institute and the Environmental Working Group and others offered a framework for only using chemicals of concern when essential. The essential-use approach is particularly appropriate for PFAS, which is not needed for textile treatments, waterproof mascara, or food packaging. Even flame retardants, often used based on an assumption of efficacy and safety rather than data, have largely been removed from products like furniture and tents after their flammability standards were updated to address modern materials and fire statistics.
The unnecessary overuse of harmful chemicals worldwide to sell more consumer products or to meet outdated flammability standards must end. All available data on chemical health impacts, especially data from human populations, must be used to understand and safeguard against impacts on wildlife and others who cannot protect themselves.
State and federal regulatory oversight for use and approval of industrial chemicals in everyday products needs to consider impacts on endangered species, critical habitats, and wildlife health in addition to the impacts on vulnerable communities living near industrial facilities.
Our research maps are a call to utilize a “one health” approach that aggregates all available data and considers shared health risk for all species as a framework to provide a path towards protecting human and wildlife health simultaneously, creating a healthier future for all.