Researchers are on high alert after the discovery of huge levels of potentially carcinogenic flame retardant chemicals in Tasmanian devils. This discovery is sure to lead to a global campaign against their use.
Tasmanian devils refer to carnivorous marsupials found only in the island Australian state of Tasmania. They resemble short, stocky and muscular dogs and are also known as 'devils'.
Preliminary results of tests ordered by the Tasmanian Government on chemicals found in the fat tissue from 16 devils are now public.
These records depict surprisingly high concentrations of toxic chemicals used in flame-retardants. These chemicals are commonly found in computers, white goods, carpets and foam in bedding and furniture.
According to scientists, more research is needed to establish if these chemicals have any role in triggering devil facial tumor disease- a rare communicable cancer that could lead the carnivore to extinction.
The International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network has also raised concerns for human health.
According to IPEN co-ordinator Mariann Lloyd-Smith, the findings add weight to a global push to ban flame-retardants. Some flame-retardants have been linked to reproductive disorders and cancers in animals and humans.
Analysis of devil fat samples by the National Measurement Institute high levels of hexabromobiphenyl (BB153) and "reasonably high" levels of decabromodiphenyl ether (BDE209).
Dr Lloyd-Smith says the discovery of these flame-retardants in wild animals in relatively non-industrial Tasmania suggests the chemicals are more insidious than previously thought. The discovery of BDE209 in devils was particularly significant , he said because industry had previously argued that this form of flame retardant was safe to replace others since it did not bioaccumulate.
Dr Lloyd-Smith was quoted : "We are surprised at these levels of this product being found in an animal that lives in remote and reasonably pristine areas.
"It certainly highlights the dangers of these sorts of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and the fact that they can travel vast distances (via the atmosphere). They are significant developmental and reproductive toxins and have been related to a range of nasty issues in animal and human health."
Dr Lloyd-Smith is expected to in November represent international NGOs at a meeting in Geneva. Here a technical committee will consider adding PBDEs to the "dirty dozen" of chemicals which are restricted under the Stockholm Convention.
"If Tasmanian devils are being exposed to these chemicals, then what on earth is happening to the population of Tasmania?" Dr Lloyd-Smith asks. "Of particular concern would be women of child-bearing age or pregnant women. They (PBDEs) can impact on the immune system. They can affect the way the brain develops, the way we think and feel", she adds.
Meanwhile there have been calls from opposition parties and experts for an assessment of the potential for human contamination by the chemicals, currently being considered for a global ban.
According to Tasmania's director of public health, Roscoe Taylor, humans, like devils, had the potential to bioaccumulate some chemical pollutants. "It warrants a look in terms of assessing the raw data and seeing where we go from there.
"Devils probably have a higher carnivorous dietary content than we do, but (with human) diets that are high in fats, people can expect to be exposed to higher concentrations of systemic chemicals", he was quoted.
The present findings are to be assessed by a panel of expert toxicologists assembled by the Tasmanian Government. Dr Taylor has given that he would evaluate whether this panel had sufficient expertise to provide a "public health perspective".