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Widely Used Fire Retardant Could Trigger Cancer

Health + Wellness
Widely Used Fire Retardant Could Trigger Cancer

Environmental Working Group

By Johanna Congleton

Earlier this year a disturbing study showed that the brominated fire retardant TBBPA, which is widely used in consumer products, triggers cancer in lab animals. Now a new study suggests that the chemical may do so by interfering with the hormone system and may stimulate estrogen activity in much the same way as the toxic flame retardant it replaced.

TBBPA was introduced as an alternative to some uses of PDBEs, a class of fire retardants that were phased out because of evidence that they persisted in the environment and interfered with hormone signaling in the body. The troubling new studies suggest that chemical manufacturers may have simply swapped out one toxic chemical for another that has the same biological effect.

TBBPA is now the most heavily manufactured brominated fire retardant in the world, with global production currently topping 200,000 tons a year. It is routinely used in electronic circuit boards and in plastic piping, automotive parts and appliances such as refrigerators. As a result of its widespread production and use in consumer products, TBBPA is now detectable in the environment, in house dust and in people—including in umbilical cord blood and breast milk.

Concerns about the safety of TBBPA spiked when the National Toxicology Program released a two-year study that showed that it induced aggressive uterine cancer in rodents.

It’s not known how the chemical causes cancer in animals or whether it would do so in humans. But the new study by researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute might give us a clue.

Using an imaging technique called x-ray crystallography, which can show how molecules interact at the atomic level, the researchers were able to observe that TBBPA attached to the enzyme “estrogen sulfotransferase” (EST for short), which plays an important role in regulating estrogen signaling in people. This kind of interaction can escalate estrogen’s activity, which has been linked in other research to excessive growth of the endometrium (the lining of the uterus), and to cancer. Abnormal EST activity in itself is also associated with uterine cancer. These results suggest how TBBPA may be inducing tumors.

The federal researchers also noticed that the interaction between the TBBPA fire retardant and the EST enzyme was similar to what occurred with the PBDE flame retardants that have been phased out.  

Meanwhile global production of TBBPA has continued to climb, a trend that will likely continue, and human exposure may also rise. It is troubling that a chemical we now know can cause tumors is being produced in greater quantities than any other brominated flame retardant. These studies raise new questions about the safety of TBBPA and call into serious question once again the outdated federal system for regulating toxic chemicals, which allows widespread production of substances that have never undergone adequate safety testing.

The TBBPA story is one more reason that legislation to update the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act must provide for safety testing of new and existing chemicals.

Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH page for more related news on this topic.

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Black licorice may look and taste like an innocent treat, but this candy has a dark side. On Sept. 23, 2020, it was reported that black licorice was the culprit in the death of a 54-year-old man in Massachusetts. How could this be? Overdosing on licorice sounds more like a twisted tale than a plausible fact.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

Financial institutions in New York state will now have to consider the climate-related risks of their planning strategies. Ramy Majouji / WikiMedia Commons

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