Chemicals used to prevent fires end up in the body, likely setting a proverbial fire to the health of several biological systems.

A recent study has indicated that flame retardant chemicals, some of which are classified as a possible human carcinogen and are commonly found in microplastics, enter the skin through perspiration.

Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDEs) are a type of organobromine compounds which are used as flame retardants that can be found in a vast array of products such as building materials, electronics, home furnishings, cars, planes, polyurethane foams, clothes and plastics.

That last one is especially notable, as microplastic pollution has been found in nearly every corner of the globe, while the pervasiveness of the other categories in daily life ensures likely contact with the compound.

“Microplastics (MPs), defined as plastic particles of less than 5 mm in size, are ubiquitous in the environment and consumer products which inevitably leads to human exposure to these particles confirmed by the recent detection of MPs in human stool (Schwabl et al., 2019), lungs (Jenner et al., 2022) and blood (Leslie et al., 2022). This has raised concern due to the high concentrations of MPs detected in several environmental compartments relevant to human exposure (e.g., air, dust, food, and water), as well as the expected substantial annual increase in environmental MPs concentrations, if no action is taken (Hale et al., 2020),” the study said.

The study, conducted at the University of Birmingham shows that sweaty skin absorbs up to 8 percent of the flame retardant chemicals while dry skin does not.

“More sweaty skin resulted in higher bioavailability of PBDEs from dermal contact with MPs than dry skin,” the study said.

The experimentation was conducted by exposing models of human skin to two commonly occurring types of microplastics which contain PBDEs.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) state that while the effects of low level PBDEs exposure in humans is not well understood, animal studies do indicate harm.

“In animal studies, these chemicals have shown some effects on the thyroid and liver, as well as on brain development,” the CDC said.

The Washington Department of Health indicates that PBDEs are indeed harmful to animals but downplayed any effects on humans.

“Animal studies have shown that PBDE exposure during pregnancy and after birth caused problems with brain development in offspring. These studies observed problems with learning, memory, and behavior in mice and rats. Animal studies also found that PBDEs can alter thyroid and other hormone levels. There is limited evidence of adverse effects in humans,” the WA DOH said.

The state health department has went on to discuss the carcinogenicity of the flame retardant chemical based on animal studies.

“We don’t know if PBDEs can cause cancer in people. Rats and mice that ate food with decabromodiphenyl ether (Deca-BDE, which is one type of PBDE) throughout their lives, developed liver tumors. Based on this information, the EPA classified decabromodiphenyl ether as a possible human carcinogen,” the WA DOH said.

Another study shows that while these chemicals have low acute toxic effects, long term negative health effects from them is likely, and that the chemicals are extremely pervasive in society and ecosystems.

“They have low acute toxicity, but the effects of interfering with the thyroid hormone metabolism in the endocrine system are long term. Many congeners of PBDEs are considered to pose a danger to humans and the aquatic environment,” the study said. “They have shown the possibility of causing many undesirable effects, together with neurologic, immunological, and reproductive disruptions and possible carcinogenicity in humans. PBDEs have been detected in small amounts in biological samples, including hair, human semen, blood, urine, and breastmilk, and environmental samples such as sediment, soil, sewage sludge, air, biota, fish, mussels, surface water, and wastewater.”

Yet another study notes concerns regarding various biological systems in humans being negatively impacted by PBDEs due to the fact the chemicals bioaccumulate.

“The continued accumulation of PBDEs has raised concerns about their potential toxicity, including hepatotoxicity, kidney toxicity, gut toxicity, thyroid toxicity, embryotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, and immunotoxicity,” the study said.

And in yet another study, neurological effects on animals is documented.

“Based on studies on experimental animals, the toxicological endpoints of exposure to PBDEs are likely to be thyroid homeostasis disruption, neurodevelopmental deficits, reproductive changes, and even cancer. Experimental studies in animals and epidemiological observations in humans suggest that PBDEs may be developmental neurotoxicants. Pre- and/or postnatal exposure to PBDEs may cause long-lasting behavioral abnormalities, particularly on motor activity and cognition,” the study said.

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