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This week, NOAA released a report that finds that man-made toxic chemicals used as flame retardants in consumer products are found in all U.S. coastal waters and the Great Lakes.
The chemicals are called Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers, or PBDEs, and they've generated a lot concern around the world in recent years because they are found all over the globe and a growing number of studies are finding that these toxins are damaging to the environment and to human health.
Today, we'll talk with one of the authors of the report.
It's Wednesday, April 1st, and this is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.
(Interview with Dr. Gunnar Lauenstein)
Today we'll hear from Dr. Gunnar Lauenstein, one of the authors of the new report and program manager for NOAA's Mussel Watch.
What do mussels have to do with flame retardants? Well, the report is based on data from this program, which has been monitoring coastal water contaminants in mussels and oysters for over two decades at about 300 different sites around the nation.
Dr. Lauenstein said that mussels and oysters are used for monitoring not only because they are stationary creatures, but because they have several key characteristics that make them useful.
[DR. LAUENSTEIN] "Mussels and oysters have a couple of advantages when it comes to looking at contaminant concentrations in living organisms. One of the advantages is that these creatures do not metabolize things like oil-related compounds [so] we can see we what the organism was actually exposed to. Another advantage is that because mussels and oysters are found in many locations in the United States, we minimize the different kinds of organisms we have to look it."
[DR. LAUENSTEIN] "Because Mussel Watch collects around the U.S., when we see high concentrations or we see something new – for example the flame retardants, or PBDEs, local managers and regulators can then do more in-depth studies to see if this is a broad local problem or just a problem with that one mussel site in that area."
Now that we've talked a bit about what Mussel Watch is, let's get back to the report. Lauenstein and his colleagues found that flame retardants, known as PBDEs, are now found throughout all areas of the U.S.—the coastal environments, the Great Lakes, and even in Alaska. These chemicals are everywhere and they seem to be increasing.
[DR. LAUENSTEIN] "I think what we're seeing in this report is that, even though PBDEs were first looked at in the human environment, they are clearly now in the in the marine coastal environment in mussels and oysters. But mussels and oysters are, in a sense, a canary in the coalmine for environmental contaminants."
Flame retardants are used in products in the U.S to reduce the risk of fire in things like upholstery, carpet padding, casings of TV sets, computers, and office furniture. All of us at some point are exposed to flame retardants. While these chemicals help to protect against fire, the bad news is that laboratory studies indicate that PBDEs may impair liver, thyroid, and neurobehavioral development. The most sensitive populations are likely to be pregnant women, developing fetuses, and infants. Dr. Lauenstein:
[DR. LAUENSTEIN] "PBDEs can be as much as 30 percent by weight in cushions found in things like couches. So when we sit on a couch, there could be a possible invisible cloud of PBDEs that we're breathing. From what I've read in the literature, infants or young toddlers frequently have the highest PBDE concentrations in the household and that may be because they crawl on the floor, there's PBDEs in the carpet padding, and then the infants put their fingers in their mouths. And there's also literature that suggests that PBDEs, because they're fat loving, or lipophilic, they can be transferred from mother's breast milk to their infants,"
While production of PBDE flame retardants began in the 1970s and peaked in 1999, they are still found in many consumer products. Because the application of PBDEs has been so widespread—including many consumer plastics, textiles, electronics, and furniture—scientists speculate that they may present an ongoing and growing problem in coastal environments.
How do these chemicals make their way into the environment? Lauenstein said there are several ways that this happens.
[DR. LAUENSTEIN] "PBDEs can move into the environment from municipal waste; PBDEs can move into the environment from consumer goods as they're discarded; PBDEs and PCBs both can move up into the atmosphere, and this is one way that they are not only local from where their source is, but they can be broadcast throughout our world environment."
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a class of toxic chemicals once used in consumer products that share similar qualities to PBDEs.
According to Lauenstein, the broader implication of the report is that we as a society need to the need to rethink how we handle products laden with PBDEs.
For instance, most municipalities today discard old couches in landfills. If these landfills leak, there is a threat that PBDE chemicals will be released back into the marine environment or groundwater. Alternatively, if a couch is incinerated, PBDEs may be released via stack gases and wind up in the atmosphere.
[DR. LAUENSTEIN] "We in a sense have a cycle here: we have human consumerism and PBDEs, or flame retardants, being released in to the environment, moving into the marine environment, and from the marine environment possibly moving back into the human environment. This study gives decision makers and managers a tool to see the extent of PBDE contamination in our coastal environment and hopefully help in the decision process."
That was Dr. Gunnar Lauenstein, program manager for NOAA's mussel watch program. The report is called "An Assessment of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) in Sediments and Bivalves of the U.S. Coastal Zone." It was produced by NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science Mussel Watch Program with support from NOAA's Ocean and Human Health Initiative.
It's important to note that the report is written for a wide audience – not for other scientists, so it's easy to understand and digest. You can find the full report online at http://ccma.nos.noaa.gov/PBDEreport. And surf over to our Web site at oceanservice.noaa.gov for more on this story, including links to direct you to key resources to learn more about this new report, and to learn more about the problem of PBDEs in our environment.
That's all for this week. If you have any questions or comments about the podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now let's bring in the ocean.
This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. See you next week.