Playing with fire

University of Saskatchewan toxicology student David Saunders has analyzed dust from 20 daycares in the Saskatoon area to learn whether flame retardant chemicals in foam furniture and children’s toys pose a health hazard.

By University Communications
Added to fabrics and furniture to increase fire resistance, brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in high concentrations are potentially toxic for human health and very persistent in the environment.

The BFRs first developed are now banished from the North American market, and manufacturers have recently replaced them with alternatives. But their long-term safety is uncertain.

Saunders has been awarded a prestigious $150,000 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to study the chemical structure of these new compounds and their potential toxicity. He hopes his work will one day help inform development of regulations for BFRs.

His analysis of the daycare dust has confirmed the presence of BFRs at double the average concentrations of these chemicals found in previous studies in the U.K. and California. He cautions his findings are preliminary and that further research is needed.

He also found small quantities of two other types of compounds that have never been found before in dust samples. These two chemicals have potential to accumulate in the human body even at low concentrations, he said.

"These new chemicals were only discovered in environmental samples in 2006 and, as such, there is little information about their toxicities or concentrations in the environment," said Saunders' supervisor John Giesy, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Toxicology.

"The fact that BFRs are added to ‘juvenile furniture' really got me interested," said Saunders. "My mother has had a daycare for over 22 years, so I have an interest in toxicants that could affect children."

BFRs leach from foam and their components bind easily with dust, increasing the chance of absorption by humans. Because children have frequent hand-to-mouth activity, they can easily ingest contaminated dust.

"Because these compounds are new we also had to develop novel methods to detect them," said Saunders. "We use highly complex instruments which cost up to $750,000 to analyze them at the parts per trillion level—that's a single molecule among a trillion other molecules."

The team's novel methods for analyzing these new compounds will be shared with the international scientific community and at a conference in Barcelona.

Saunders is also investigating the amount of BFRs absorbed by the human body and potential long-term health effects.

He has performed preliminary tests on fish, adding BFRs to their food, and has discovered that these chemicals can impair fish growth and fertility.

"From our fish experiments, we have discovered that these chemicals affect the ability of fish to lay eggs," he said. "BFRs could alter animals' developmental cues and hormone amounts in the body."

Saunders was drawn to the U of S due to its strengths in toxicology research. He noted the Toxicology Centre is one of only a handful of research groups in the world studying BFRs.

"The Toxicology Centre attracts some of the finest toxicologists in the world and is ranked in the top five globally," he said. "I knew I wanted to be here."

Article written by Federica Giannelli, a graduate student intern in the U of S research profile and impact unit. This article first ran as part of the 2014 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.