Chemists have just found a new and relatively unknown flame retardant in the environment

Flame retardants are known to cause plenty of problems despite their apparent usefulness in everyday items. Now, there is new evidence that suggests the flame retardant problem may be a lot bigger than earlier thought. Chemists working at Indiana University have discovered an entirely new flame retardant, and they found it out in the environment. Its main source is unknown but the researchers are already trying to learn as much about it as they possibly can.

It is said that the study conducted by the Indiana University chemists is the first one to ever focus on the potentially toxic chemical in North America and that it can be considered a relatively unknown substance at the moment. The chemical does have a name, however: TTBP-TAX. It’s said to be part of a class of so-called triazine-based “alternative” compounds that were originally introduced to act as substitutes for earlier versions of flame retardants that were already banned or simply removed from the market due to certain environmental and health concerns.

The researchers noted that they found the new chemical in an electronic waste facility, as well as in bedrooms and living rooms of homes located in Bloomington, Indiana. In electronic waste facilities, it is to be expected, but its discovery in ordinary people’s homes raises a lot of questions about its origins and how exactly it spreads in the environment. They published the details of their study in a recent issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

According to Marta Venier, a scientist who works in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington and the lead author of the study, the chemical is really new to chemists and needs to be studied further. “We don’t know much about these compounds,” she said. “This research shows they are in the environment and we come into contact with them, but we don’t know much about their effects.”

Flame-retardant chemicals are typically used in certain types of building materials and consumer products. In use, they tend to escape into the environment, and there it is possible for them to persist for many years, and at some point cause problems pertaining to the environment and human health. (Related: Fire retardant chemicals used in your mattress linked to 74% rise in thyroid cancer tumors.)

According to the researchers, their discovery of the new chemical was purely accidental. It all began with chemical detective work conducted by Jiehong Guo, the first author of the study. The team was simply analyzing samples taken from an electronics recycling facility located in Canada, measuring known kinds of flame retardants. During their analysis, however, they came across a chemical that they didn’t recognize. After running some tests, they were able to identify it as TTBP-TAX, which had already been mentioned in an earlier study from the Netherlands. So they looked for other places where it might be present.

The researchers said that they found “significant concentrations” of the chemical compound in air and dust samples taken from the Canadian e-waste recycling plant. Even more troubling is the fact that they also found it in 70 percent of household dust samples that were taken from 20 homes near the researchers’ residences in Bloomington, Indiana. In comparison, they found only trace amounts of it in outdoor air, sediment, and water samples.

Since flame retardants already exist and can come from other sources, this chemical isn’t exactly creating an entirely new problem. However, the mere fact that it presents a distinctly separate source of potentially hazardous materials is quite problematic. At the very least, now that it has been found in the environment, getting rid of it should be possible as well.

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