More than 150 species of wildlife around the world, ranging from belugas to butterflies, are at risk due to contamination from chemicals used in flame-retardant materials, a study said.
Research carried out by the Green Science Policy Institute found that these chemicals have reached wildlife across every continent, affecting species on land and in the oceans, such as killer whales, red pandas, and chimpanzees.
The research found that, despite their intended benefit of reducing flammability in various products, such as TVs and car fittings, these chemicals often migrate into the environment, affecting wildlife and humans detrimentally.
Lydia Jahl, who led the project, told The National: "In humans and in wildlife, flame retardants are associated with cancer, endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity, developmental impairment, decrease in immune function and more."
These pollutants include older chemicals that have been phased out, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), as well as their newer counterparts including chlorinated paraffins and organophosphate flame retardants.
These substances, even at low levels, are known to be harmful, causing severe health problems such as liver, thyroid, and kidney cancers in lab animals, and affecting IQ, attention, and memory in children.
"Flame retardants used in products such as electronics and textiles can travel through the air and through water and can be quite persistent, which is how they reach animals globally," Ms Jahl said.
"Many flame retardants are not bound to the product they are in and are semi-volatile, meaning they evaporate over time into the air and can repartition into dust and other materials."
Killer whales, among other marine life, bear the brunt of this contamination, with chemicals like PCBs, despite being banned since the 1970s, being linked to reduced calf survival rates and weakened immune systems.
Ms Jahl said: “Flame retardants don’t actually make TV enclosures and car interiors more fire-safe, but they can harm people and animals.”
The scientists' findings underscore the severity of the threat, projecting that PCB contamination could obliterate half of the world’s killer whale populations in the next century.
Arlene Blum, the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, said: “Killer whales shouldn’t have to swim in a sea of flame retardants.
“The science is clear that these chemicals harm their development – as well as that of our children.”
The research also pointed out the insidious presence of these chemicals in remote areas far removed from their production sites.
For instance, elevated levels of flame retardants have been detected in chimpanzees in a protected Ugandan National Park, highlighting the vast reach of these pollutants.
Ms Jahl also said there was need to revisit regulations, suggesting: “Instead of this endless cycle of regrettable substitutions, we need to evaluate whether many of the flammability standards that drive the use of flame retardants are even helpful.”
She told The National: "In some instances, flame retardants are required by standards where they are not helpful for fire safety and only expose people, the environment and animals to the flame retardants. An example of this is plastic enclosures around lithium ion batteries.
"What is important is that there are high standards for battery manufacturing to ensure the batteries are not damaged or faulty – once a battery catches fire, having a flame-retarded plastic enclosure around it will not stop the fire, it will only increase the amount of toxic smoke produced."