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Widely Used Fire Retardant Could Trigger Cancer

Health + Wellness

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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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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