Although some flame retardant chemicals are banned in Canada, many of them are found in the country’s wildlife, including endangered species.
A map compiled by the Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI), a nonprofit organization based in California, details a number of species in Canada and around the world containing one or more flame retardant chemicals.
Fire retardants are applied to everything 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 human beings impact the world in ways that we often don’t think about,” Lydia Jahl, GSPI’s chief science and policy officer, told CTVNew.ca in an interview. “When we think about climate change and how we influence it, it’s not just about carbon dioxide, it’s also about the toxic chemicals that are used in very small amounts.”
Using studies evaluated by experts around the world, GSPI researchers compiled a list of species and their habitats with the presence of flame retardants.
Scientists are concerned about the presence of these chemicals in the environment and their impact on wildlife and humans.
HOW FIRE RETARDANTS TAKE INTO THE NATURAL WORLD
The flame retardant map is loosely based on an Environmental Working Group draft, Jahl said.
“It’s not an exhaustive list,” she said. “If we took the time to plot the dots from every peer-reviewed study, there would be many more on this map, which is a little scary, to be honest.”
The map features more than 100 different wildlife species around the world, including 13 in Canada that have been exposed to flame retardants.
The GSPI project breaks down chemicals into classes such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and newer replacement chemicals like chlorinated paraffins and organophosphates.
The map above was created by Maddie Dolan using inspiration from the Green Science Policy Institute’s Environmental Working Group. Click here to see full card details.
In Canada, PCBs were banned in 1977 And PBDEs had “restricted” use in 2008. All chlorinated paraffins are considered “harmful” to human health » reads on the Government of Canada website, and were banned in 2013.
“Not all flame retardants pose a risk to health or the environment at current exposure levels. Potential risks to the environment, including wildlife, are identified at the risk assessment stage,” a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada told CTVNews.ca. an email. “These risks are taken into account when developing the risk management measures that would be put in place to help protect wildlife from harmful (toxic) substances.”
Although not widely used, these chemicals contaminate the environment through products left in landfills, city water runoff and chemical evaporation, Jahl said.
“It comes down to flammability standards that are intended to protect us from fire, but an unfortunate side effect is that many times these standards are not based on unbiased fire testing,” she said . “So they can lead to the use of flame retardants when that wouldn’t even be useful.”
One example of this, Jahl said, is chemicals added to synthetic children’s tents. Thanks to the material used, the tents do not catch fire but melt.
“They are 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 this is an example of something that is supposed to be protective, but it leads to exposure to these harmful chemicals.”
CONSEQUENCES OF CHEMICALS FOR WILDLIFE
Belugas located in the St. Lawrence River estuary are represented on the map.
According to several studies carried out from 1987 to 2023, all classes of flame retardants have been detected in the species. This is a concern for scientists because belugas are considered endangered and suffered from diseases like cancer due to pollutants.
The North Atlantic right whale, in Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, was noted on the map. Several species of birds including the great blue heron, ring-billed gull, glaucous gull and northern fulmar were also mentioned on the map.
The peregrine falcon, which is classified as a species of special concern in Canadais particularly sensitive to flame retardants, Kim Fernie, wildlife toxicologist and senior research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, said.
“In general, it’s the predators at the top of the food chain that are more likely to accumulate flame retardant chemicals than wild animals lower on the food chain,” Fernie told CTVNew.ca in an interview . “We have found over the years that nesting peregrines can accumulate a number of flame retardants.”
Through his research on the American kestrel, a close relative of the peregrines, Fernie said new flame retardant chemicals – as well as products banned for decades – had been found in the birds.
Pictured is a peregrine falcon from one of Kim Fernie’s studies. (Kim Fernie, Environment and Climate Change Canada)
The GSPI lists peregrine habitat in Ungave Bay, Kativik, Quebec, but some also nest in the Great Lakes basin, Fernie said.
It’s unclear what impact flame retardants have on wildlife overall, but for peregrine falcons and kestrels, the chemicals are likely to influence their thyroid hormones, Fernie said.
“The thyroid system can regulate some of their growth, it can regulate their metabolism and it can also regulate…their ability to stay warm or cool,” she said. “It also plays a role in other physiological functions.”
In some Fernie studies, birds laid more eggs but had lower hatching success rates. Some baby birds also grew faster, which Fernie said is not a good thing for wild birds.
Some of Fernie’s research on kestrels indicates a change in behavior in the birds, possibly due to the presence of flame retardants.
“A number of historical flame retardants, those that are now regulated, have altered the behavior of birds, particularly observed changes in their courtship behavior,” she said.
Some birds called their mates less, exchanged fewer gifts between males and females and did not inspect their nesting sites.
“It might not seem like a big deal, but for a kestrel, these behaviors establish a very strong bond that ensures you select a high-quality mate,” Fernie said.
HUMANS ALSO AT RISK OF EXPOSURE TO FIRE RETARDANTS
Since flame retardants are present in the environment, Amira Aker, a postdoctoral fellow at Laval University, says humans are also at risk of suffering the consequences.
A classification of flame retardants, PCBs are linked to liver and kidney cancer. Low levels of exposure are unlikely to cause serious health consequences, says the Health Canada website.
“There is evidence that they may weaken the immune system.“, Aker told CTVNews.ca in an interview. “Things like type 2 diabetes, obesity and liver disorders have all been linked to PCBs.”
Other research suggests PBDEs – a separate class of flame retardants – cause neurodevelopmental problems for fetuses.
“You see a whole host of different impacts if you’re exposed to a very high exposure, but the ones I’m talking about are those in the general population who are getting these low doses,” Aker said.
These chemicals are “persistent,” she said, and can take years to be expelled from the human body.
“Even if it’s a low dose because it’s constantly present, it could end up disrupting your immune system and your endocrine system,” she said.