Flame retardants might help save your couch from an unattended candle, but Memorial research shows that some of the chemicals found in our household items are building up in the planet.
Dr. Cora Young, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, studies the long-range transport of contaminants found in consumer products.
Those chemicals are mostly used in urban centres, but have been found in remote regions like the Arctic and northern Newfoundland and Labrador.
“The way these chemicals end up globally distributed is not well understood, and that is something we are working on,” she said. “We think they are transported to a large extent through the atmosphere. They then get deposited in the Arctic and accumulate through the food chain.”
Dr. Young says polar regions tend to amass pollutants because of the cold temperatures, which prevents them from being transported further.
It is a real concern due to the fact that many northern peoples’ traditional foods, seal and beluga for example, are at the top of the long Arctic food chain. Toxic contaminants found in consumer goods biomagnify — meaning they become increasingly concentrated in the tissues of organisms at successively higher levels.
“Our role is to figure out how they are getting there to bioaccumulate in the food chain.”
“We worry about the health impacts on northerners because these chemicals may have toxic effects as endocrine disruptors and carcinogens,” said Dr. Young.
“Our role is to figure out how they are getting there to bioaccumulate in the food chain and hopefully that information will lead to regulation to prevent that long-range transport.”
Her research group has been collecting aerosols — tiny suspended particulates in the atmosphere — from its rooftop lab on the Earth Sciences building on Memorial’s St. John’s campus, as well as rainwater samples from stations in Labrador and Western Newfoundland, and ice core samples collected from high Arctic ice caps.
“Ice core samples are great because they give us the same information as precipitation, but in an archived way,” explained Dr. Young. “The ice core we are looking at right now goes back to 1979 and we’re hoping to get some that go back to the early 1960s. From that, we can better understand the temporal trend of the transport and deposition of these chemicals.”
The archival record provided by the ice samples also allows researchers to see the effect of production trends. Legacy flame retardants are now banned in most countries because of their toxicity; Arctic ice core samples show a clear timeline for when they stop appearing and when their replacements start.
Dr. Amila De Silva is a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), whose research aims to produce data to facilitate informed decisions.
Dr. De Silva is also an adjunct professor in the chemistry department and collaborates with Dr. Young on the project.
“Understanding long range transport of contaminants is essential to developing knowledge on impacts to wildlife, water, air and climate.”
She says Canada was the first country to ratify the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international environmental treaty. It prioritizes substances for elimination or restriction, based on persistence, bioaccumulation and long-range environmental transport.
“Understanding long range transport of contaminants is essential to developing knowledge on impacts to wildlife, water, air and climate,” said Dr. De Silva. “A major priority area of the Canadian government is tracking the origin, fate and impact of critical contaminants on the environment.”
“The compounds we are looking at are a concern to ECCC,” said Dr. Young. “That’s one of the reasons we collaborate with them. They benefit from working with us, because the information we collect goes directly back to policy-makers and, in the past, this type of research has led to policy change.
“One of the things we hope to learn from our ice cores samples is whether previous policy changes have actually made a difference.”
So far, they’ve been able to determine contaminants in Newfoundland and Labrador mainly come from the Eastern U.S. and Canada, while the high Arctic receives them from Asia. That tells researchers that, while policies limiting production in North America might make some difference, a worldwide strategy may be what’s needed.
Exposure at home
Dr. Young says her research has changed her personal buying habits.
For those of us living in cities, most of our exposure to harmful consumer products comes from mattresses, couches, carpets and electronics.
“An important thing you can do is reduce dust by frequently vacuuming. It can make a huge difference, especially for little children.”
“I’m pretty selective about the things I buy, but it’s hard,” she said. “Some of my friends tell me I’m a real downer because I keep telling them, ‘Oh, you have to throw that out. You shouldn’t have that in your house.’ Finding mattresses that don’t have flame retardants on them, for example, is extremely challenging and there’s a lot of evidence suggesting the chemicals don’t even provide a benefit, in terms of reducing flammability.
“The chemicals can be hard to avoid, and that’s dispiriting. However, if you do want to avoid exposure to flame retardants in your home, an important thing you can do is reduce dust by frequently vacuuming. It can make a huge difference, especially for little children.”