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Chemicals harming wildlife, humans in Canada banned

Despite some flame retardant chemicals being banned in Canada many are found in wildlife across the country including species that are endangered.

A map compiled by the Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI), a nonprofit based in California, details a number of species across Canada and the world with one or more flame-retardant chemicals in them.

Flame retardants are put on anything from furniture to electronics to prevent the spread of fire. Many chemicals have been banned and are not in Canada but continue to be present in the natural world, the map shows.

“Our actions as humans impact the world in a way we often don’t think about,” Lydia Jahl, GSPI’s science and policy manager, told CTVNew.ca in an interview. “When we think of climate change and how we influence that, it’s not just about carbon dioxide, it’s also about the toxic chemicals that are used in very small amounts.”

Using peer-reviewed studies from experts worldwide, the researchers at GSPI compiled a list of species and their habitat locations with the presence of flame retardants.

The concern for scientists is how present these chemicals are in the environment and how they are impacting wildlife and humans.

HOW FLAME RETARDANTS GET INTO THE NATURAL WORLD

The flame retardant map is loosely based on a project by the Environmental Working Group, Jahl said.

“This isn’t an exhaustive list,” she said. “If we took the time to plot the points of every single peer-reviewed study, there would be so many more across this map, which is a little frightening, to be honest.”

The map features over 100 different wildlife species across the world including 13 in Canada that have been exposed to flame retardants.

GSPI’s project breaks down the chemicals into classes such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and newer replacement chemicals like chlorinated paraffins and organophosphate.

The above map was created by Maddie Dolan with inspiration from the Environmental Working Group for the Green Science Policy Institute. Click here to see all the map details.

In Canada, PCBs were banned in 1977 and PBDEs had “restricted” use in 2008. All chlorinated paraffins are considered “harmful” to human health the Government of Canada website reads, and were banned in 2013.

“Not all flame retardants pose a risk to health or the environment at current levels of exposure. Potential risks to the environment, including wildlife, are identified at the risk assessment stage,” a spokesperson from Environment and Climate Change Canada told CTVNews.ca in an email. “These risks are taken into account during the development of risk management actions that would be put in place to help protect wildlife from harmful (toxic) substances.”

Despite not being widely used these chemicals contaminate the environment through products that are left in landfills, water runoff from cities and through evaporation of the chemicals, Jahl said.

“It comes down to flammability standards that are intended to protect us from fire but an unfortunate side effect is that oftentimes, these standards are not based on unbiased fire testing,” she said. “So they can lead to flame retardant usage when it wouldn’t even be helpful.”

One example of this, Jahl said, is the chemicals being added to synthetic children’s tents. Due to the material, the tents don’t catch fire but instead melt.

“They’re used indoors with caregivers present, it’s not like a five-year-old is playing in the little tent with a candle,” she said. “So it’s an example of something that’s intended to be protective, but it leads to exposure to these harmful chemicals.”

CONSEQUENCES OF CHEMICALS FOR WILDLIFE

Beluga whales located in the estuary of the St Lawrence River are being featured on the map.

According to multiple studies from 1987 to 2023, all classes of flame retardants have been detected in the species. This is a concern for scientists because beluga whales are considered to be endangered and have suffered from diseases like cancer due to pollutants.

The North Atlantic right whale in the Magdalen Islands, Que., was noted on the map. Several bird species including the great blue heron, ring-billed gull, glaucous gull and northern fulmar were also mentioned on the map.

The peregrine falcon, which is categorized as a species of concern in Canada, is particularly sensitive to flame retardants, Kim Fernie, a wildlife toxicologist and senior research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, said.

“Generally, it’s predators at the top of the food chain that are more at risk of accumulating flame retardant chemicals than wildlife that are lower down in the food chain,” Fernie told CTVNew.ca in an interview. “We found over the years that nestling peregrines can accumulate quite a number of flame retardants.”

Through her research on American kestrels, a close relative to peregrines, Fernie said newer flame retardant chemicals — as well as ones that have been banned for decades — were found in the birds.

Pictured is a peregrine falcon from one of Kim Fernie’s studies. (Kim Fernie, Environment and Climate Change Canada)

GSPI lists peregrine habitat in Ungave Bay, Kativik, Que., but some nest in the Great Lakes Basin as well, Fernie said.

It is not clear how flame retardants impact all wildlife but for peregrine falcons and kestrels, the chemicals are likely to influence their thyroid hormones, Fernie said.

“The thyroid system can regulate their growth in part, it can regulate their metabolism and it can also regulate…their ability to keep warm or cool,” she said. “It also plays a role in other physiological functions.”

In some of Fernie’s studies, the birds laid more eggs but they had a poorer hatching success rate. Some nestlings also grew quicker, which Fernie said is not a good thing for wild birds.

Some of Fernie’s research on kestrels points to a behavioural change in the birds possibly due to the presence of flame retardants.

“A number of the historical flame retardants, those that are now regulated, the behaviour of the birds has been modified, specifically observed changes in their courtship behaviour,” she said.

Some birds were making fewer calls to their mates, exchanging fewer gifts between males and females and weren’t inspecting their nest sites.

“That might not sound terribly important but to a kestrel, these behaviours are establishing a bond that’s really strong to ensure that you’re selecting a high-quality mate,” Fernie said.

HUMANS ALSO AT RISK OF FLAME RETARDANT EXPOSURE

Since flame retardants are present in the environment, Amira Aker, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Laval, said humans are also at risk of consequences.

One classification of flame retardants, PCBs, is linked to liver and kidney cancer. Low levels of exposure are unlikely to cause severe health impacts, the Health Canada website reads.

“There is evidence that they might suppress the immune system,” Aker told CTVNews.ca in an interview. “Things like type two diabetes and obesity and liver disorders have all been linked with PCBs.”

Other research suggests PBDEs — a separate class of flame retardants — lead to neurodevelopmental issues for fetuses.

“You do see a whole slew of different impacts if you’re if you have very high exposure, but the ones that I’m talking about are those in the general population who have these low doses,” Aker said.

These chemicals are “persistent” she said and can take years to expel from a human body.

“Even if it’s at a low dose because it’s constantly there, it could end up messing up with your immune and your endocrine systems,” she said. 



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