Analysis of dung from wild reindeer in the Arctic finds that it contains manmade flame retardants.
The study, recently published in the journal Chemosphere, is a reminder of how persistent flame retardants are in the environment, such that they can even reach some of the most remote and sparsely populated regions of the planet.
The chemicals examined in the study are called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.
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"PBDEs have been used extensively as additive flame retardants in commercial and household products for several decades," wrote lead author Zhen Wang and colleagues from the National Marine Environmental Monitoring Center in China.
The researchers added, "They can release into the environment during the production, use and dismantling of the products due to their weak chemical bonding."
The scientists collected multiple samples of surface soil, moss and reindeer dung from Ny-Ålesund, a research town located on the island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway. Reindeer, also known as caribou in North America, are native to this Arctic region.
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PBDEs were detected in all of the studied samples. The amounts were highest in moss, but second highest in the reindeer feces. Moss is one of the favorite foods of reindeer, such that one species is even commonly called "reindeer moss."
The researchers explained that the flame retardants "tend to be strongly absorbed in soil," where they then become concentrated in moss.
"Once persistent organic pollutants are ingested into (the) body by animals, they are hard to be degraded, owing to their persistence, and one of the main elimination pathways from (the) body is believed to be via feces," according to Wang and colleagues.
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Since the flame retardants do not break down easily, it is then possible that after the reindeer eliminate some of the ingested chemicals, they absorb back into the soil and moss, starting the whole cycle over again.
An EPA fact sheet on these and related chemicals notes that the compounds have been widely used as flame retardants over the decades in plastics, furniture, upholstery, electrical equipment, electronic devices, textiles and other household products. As a result, your home is likely full of them now.
They work to prevent flare ups because, at high temperatures, they release bromine radicals that reduce both the rate of combustion and dispersion of fire.
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The very bad side is that several studies have shown that exposure to them can cause a variety of health problems. According to the EPA, these include cancer; neurological problems; kidney, liver and skin disorders and more.
Scientists have been working on ways to break down the chemicals in the environment without causing much further pollution. For example, activated carbon has been investigated as a way to clear the chemicals from soil.
The fact that even reindeer at a remote location experience PBDE exposure, however, indicates that we are a long way from solving the problems associated with these chemicals.