Washington, DC - Seals, whales, falcons, and polar bears are among a range of wildlife at risk from chemicals used in common consumer products, according to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) analysis of recent scientific evidence on contamination of wildlife and people.
"Products we use every day contain chemicals that can have serious wildlife and human health effects," said Clifton Curtis, director of WWF's Global Toxics Program. "Mounting scientific research is documenting the extent of our exposure to these chemicals."
The WWF report Causes for Concern: Chemicals and Wildlife, highlights perfluorinated compounds, phthalates, phenolic compounds and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) as the most prominent new toxic hazards. Perfluorinated compounds are used in the production of textiles, food packaging and non-stick coatings such as Teflon, while phthalates can be found in plastics (including PVC), phenolic compounds in food cans, plastic bottles and computer shells, and BFRs in furniture and TVs. While contamination of animals and humans by harmful chemicals such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) has been widely documented, the dangers of many chemicals still on the market - and recently studied - are increasingly clear.
According to the report, these toxic compounds can cause severe health disorders such as cancer, damage to the immune system, behavioral problems, hormone disruption, or even feminization. A wide range of animals are contaminated. Scientists have found perfluorinated compounds - classified as cancer-causing chemicals by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - in dolphins, whales and cormorants in the Mediterranean, seals and sea eagles in the Baltic, and polar bears. Exposure to bisphenol A has resulted in sex reversals in broad-snouted caiman, an alligator relative native to South America; and BFRs have been found in sperm whales and seals in the Canadian Arctic, and recently discovered in the eggs of peregrine falcons.
Existing regulation to protect wildlife and people from these harmful chemicals is ineffective, according to WWF. However, the European Union (EU) is currently considering legislation that would fundamentally change the way chemicals are managed. The law, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), would require manufacturers and importers to provide safety information on the 30,000 or so industrial chemicals annually marketed in Europe. WWF has launched an international DetoX Campaign to push for the adoption and strengthening of REACH.
"Future dangers will only be averted if the effects of chemicals are exposed and then the dangerous ones are never used," said Curtis. "Perfluorinated compounds are a perfect example of the need of REACH. Manufacturers like 3M and DuPont conducted research on these substances for 30 years but they were not willing to share the results. REACH would not allow that."
WWF's report warns there is also continuing evidence of widespread contamination of animals, people and the environment by chemicals that are now banned or restricted (PCBs, DDT compounds, tributyltin). According to WWF, this ongoing contamination demonstrates how persistent these substances are and why it is important to prevent newer-generation chemicals from accumulating in the environment and leaving a similar legacy.
WWF stresses that the precautionary principle is indispensable to reduce the risks posed by past and current chemicals. Embracing this principle, REACH also responds to the lack of safety information on chemicals on the market, the conservation organization says.
"We know that the global production of chemicals is increasing, and at the same time we have warning signals that a variety of troubling threats to wildlife and human health are becoming more prevalent," adds Clifton Curtis. "It is reckless to suggest there is no link between the two, and give chemicals the benefit of the doubt."