A new report published online in the Environmental Science & Technology, the journal of the American Chemical Society, says that bacteria present in the soil can convert// a commonly used flame retardant compound in the US to toxic forms that could prove harmful to human health.
The finding, by a team of environmental engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests these transformations could complicate efforts to reduce or eliminate the most problematic polybrominated diphenyl esters (PBDEs) from the environment.
"This study, for the first time, establishes that microbes found in every-day settings can degrade relatively stable forms of PBDEs, making them far less stable and potentially more toxic," says Lisa Alvarez-Cohen, Ph.D., the study’s corresponding author. "It implies that current and planned bans of the most toxic forms of PBDEs may be ineffectual if the less toxic forms are rendered more toxic when released into the environment."
In laboratory animals, high blood levels of PBDE are associated with cancer, lowered immunity, thyroid problems, and learning and memory difficulties. Although PBDE levels in people haven’t reached the levels of laboratory animals, Alvarez-Cohen says scientists are concerned because they are rising in humans at an exponential rate, doubling every two to five years.
In 2004, U.S. manufacturers reached a voluntary agreement with the EPA to stop making and selling penta-BDEs and octa-BDEs, two potent forms of PBDEs linked to health problems in animals. Deca-BDE, the most commonly used form of PBDE, remains on the market because it is considered more stable and less readily absorbed into the body, Alvarez-Cohen says. Laboratory studies, however, have shown that over time, both deca- and octa-BDEs can break down into potentially more harmful forms, including penta- and tetra-BDEs.
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