Flame Proof Gannets: Tracing Toxic Chemicals through our Wildlife

From Fidra’s home town of North Berwick we can see one of the ‘wildlife wonders of the world’, Bass Rock, a fitting emblem to gaze towards on World Ocean Day. Home to the worlds largest population of Northern Gannet, this little lump of rock on the edge of the North Sea has historic links with conservationChristianity and, more surprisingly, the chemicals industryHere we consider the toxic signature we‘ve imprinted on the rocks inhabitants, the story they are telling and the measures we know can work in controlling pollution.  

North Berwick owes a huge debt to the gannet. In the past, guano (bird droppings) from Bass Rock’s gannet population was used as fertiliser, essential to the productivity of farms across East Lothian and beyond. From this came the railway, designed to transport the crops and fertilisers out, but also bring the tourists in. They paddle in the shallows angaze out at Bass Rock as the arrival of its winged inhabitants each spring turns it from its winter grey to glowing white. As the gannets raise their fluffy chicks amongst the ruins of a prison and a church it is easy to think of this island with its sheer cliff faces surrounded by cold waters as an ancient fortress for wildlife. But even though Bass Rock is uninhabited by people, it is not untouched by the 21st Century.

Watching wildlife for signs of chemical contamination 

As Britain’s largest seabirdgannets impressive wings help them sail long distances during migrations, working up appetites fitting of their reputation. Diving at speeds of up to 60 mphthe gannets gorge on the bounty of small fish the North Sea provides. The sad reality is that as they do this, they also unwittingly ingest the cocktail of manufactured chemicals that we have allowed to leach from our lives back on shore. Like forensics investigators analysing human hair for poisons, scientists testing egg shells can identify the chemicals that have built up in seabirds. This doesn’t make for a pretty picture. One group of chemicals that crops up time and again are flame retardantsWe surround ourselves in these chemicals, applying them liberally to so many of the products we buy, furniture, bedding, the plastic casings of electronics, even the buildings will live inBut flame retardants should not be appearing in gannets 

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology carried out a long-term study looking at the amount of particular set of flame retardants called PBDEs in the eggshells of Bass Rock gannets [1]. Their results showed a startling similarity between the amount of flame retardants detected in the egg shells and the European consumption of these same flame retardants over time. As one type of flame retardant was restricted, the levels in shells went down, and as other flame retardants became more popular and usage went up, so did the levels in the gannets on Bass Rock. Through the shells oour local gannet populations, we can follow the impact that legislation and our own chemical consumption has on the environment.   

What does a sofa, a seabird and a spatula all have in common: flame retardants 

At Fidra, we’ve been looking into chemical pollutants of environmental concern, and across the globe, flame retardants often top the list. It is not just gannets, and it’s not just North Berwick; seals in the Baltic Sea, otters in the Hebrides, penguins in Antarctica, flies in Japan [2-4]. Dolphins, orcasporpoises and salmon [5-8]Even the cat on your sofa [9]. These animals have all been found with flame retardants in their system. They are in us too. But does that matterWon’t they simply break down obe watered down by the vastness of the oceans. In short, the answers are yes, they matter, and no, many of them do not readily disappearThey may break down to different forms, but many are classified as ‘persistent’ in the environment, meaning they don’t go away. We now know that flame retardants can interfere with the hormone systems in a range of different specieswith impacts on behaviourfertility and ultimately survival. And it’s not just wild animals that are affectedthe flame retardants found in our homes have also been linked to rising levels of hyperthyroidism (a deadly disease) in cats 

Flame retardants find a way   

The obvious question is how these chemicals get from the products they are designed to make safer, to the shells of the Bass Rock gannets and the penguins huddling for warmth on the great ice sheets of Antartica. They actually move with relative ease [10-12]. They escape from manufacturing facilities into air and waterwaysleach out of products as gas or dust as we use them in our homes and work their way into the environment long after we’ve disposed of the original itemsThey can be blown over huge distances as pollutants in the air or clinging to the fragments of dust that float in the breeze, settling on land and sea as the rain washes them out. They travel on ocean currents, in plastics and in the animals that inadvertently consume themSome of the plastic washing up on our beaches now, contains flame retardants banned years ago. Once the flame retardants enter the early steps of a food chain through flies, plankton and fish, they can soon work their way up to birds, whales and seals, accumulating as they go [13, 14]. It’s in these top predatorsmajestic and iconic animals like the polar bearthat we find the greatest amounts and where harm is most likely [15]. 

Flame retardants showing up where they shouldn’t happens in the home too. Studies are beginning to find flame retardants, unsafe for human consumption, in kitchen utensils and food packagingmost likely from recycling of plastic originally used in electronicsAs we move towards a more circular economy, rightly putting a much greater emphasis on reuse and recycling, we are at risk of losing track of the chemicals designated safe for one use, but not for another. 

Preventing Pollution 

We need to act now to ensure the environment we leave behind us isn’t hindered by a toxic legacy we failed to control. And the most effective way to control a substance as wily and resilient as a flame retardant, is to limit its useWe need to protect ourselves and our families from fire, but we also need to ensure that in doing so we aren’t introducing new hazards into our homes and the wider environment. Flame retardants should be assessed not just for the time they give us to escape a fire, but the toxicity of the fumes they produce as they burn, the toxicity they introduce into our homes on a daily basis, and the toxicity they release into our natural environmentWe need to drive innovation towards non-chemical fire safety, and we need a legislative environment that allows this.  

In the UK we currently apply much greater amounts of chemical flame retardants to our furniture and furnishings than elsewhere in the EUOur high use of flame-retardants is down to differences in the details of how fire safety tests are carried out, with little solid evidence that proves additional benefitWe could use less chemical flame retardants, there are other methods that don’t involve chemicals and there are other chemicals that are likely to be much safer. After a decade long campaign, California signed into law a ban on flame retardants in children’s products, mattresses and upholstered furniture, coming into effect in 2020 [16]This is proof that it can be done, with enough will for change we can ensure our continued protection, whilst leaving the Bass Rock gannets free to live their lives unburdened by unwanted chemicals 

The UK announced a review of its furniture regulations in 2014, but after multiple consultations and years of apparent inaction, has yet to conclude the review. But momentum is building. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee is currently in the midst of an inquiry into the impact of toxic chemicals in everyday lifeand flame retardants are on their radarHaving stated that the committee was deeply concerned by the delays that have seemingly halted the review, they are now intent on pushing for action. Concluding the review is the first step in allowing innovative, non-chemical solutions to replace the harmful flame retardants currently in use. 

The chemical signatures in the Bass Rock gannets show the impact legislation can have on the levels of environmental pollutantswhen substances were restricted, the levels in the eggs went downWe can make a genuine difference, but we need to act now, ride the back of the momentum that’s been building and ensure future legislation has the detail necessary to protect us and our environment from unintentional harm. We need to engageand there’s still time have your say by completing the Environmental Audit Committee’s online survey (bit.ly/2JelWqc). We no longer need the canary in the mine, we have the gannets on the rock, the penguins on the ice sheets and the cats on ousofas. They are already showing the effects of flame retardants; they are telling us the story of the chemicals we pump into both our homes and theirs. There are 150,000 gannets on the rock outside and I‘m listening to their story.




1 CROSSE, J. et al. Long term trends in PBDE concentrations in gannet (Morus bassanus) eggs from two UK colonies. Environ Pollut., v. 161, p. 93-100, 2012

2 ROOS, A.  et al. Flame retardant concentrations and profiles in wild birds associated with landfill: A critical review. Environ Pollut., v. 248, p. 646-658, 2001.     

 3 WALKER, L. A.  et al. Flame retardants in the livers of the Eurasian otter collected from Scotland between 2013 and 2015 (PBMS)NERC Environmental Information Data Centre 2016. 

 4 WOLSCHKE, H.  et al. Novel flame retardants (N-FRs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (DL-PCBs) in fish, penguin, and skua from King George Island, Antarctica. Marine Pollution Bulletin, v. 96, n. 1, p. 513-518, 2015. 

 5 BARÓN, E.  et al. Bioaccumulation and biomagnification of classical flame retardants, related halogenated natural compounds and alternative flame retardants in three delphinids from Southern European watersEnviron Pollut, v. 203, p. 107-115, 2015.     

 6 ROSS, P. S. Fireproof killer whales (Orcinus orca): flame-retardant chemicals and the conservation imperative in the charismatic icon of British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, v. 63, n. 1, p. 224-234, 2006. 

 7 PAPACHLIMITZOU, A.  et al. Organophosphorus flame retardants (PFRs) and plasticisers in harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) stranded or bycaught in the UK during 2012. Marine Pollution Bulletin, v. 98, n. 1, p. 328-334, 2015 

 8 NG, C. A.  et al. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE) Accumulation in Farmed Salmon Evaluated Using a Dynamic Sea-Cage Production Model. Environ Sci Technol, v. 52, n. 12, p. 6965-6973, 2018.  

 9 NORRGRAN, J.  et al. Higher PBDE Serum Concentrations May Be Associated with Feline Hyperthyroidism in Swedish Cats. Environmental Science & Technology, v. 49, n. 8, p. 5107-5114, 2015. 

10 AZNAR-ALEMANY, Ò.  et al. Preliminary study of long-range transport of halogenated flame retardants using Antarctic marine mammals. Science of The Total Environment, v. 650, p. 1889-1897, 2019 

 11 MA, Y.  et al. Organophosphate Ester Flame Retardants and Plasticizers in Ocean Sediments from the North Pacific to the Arctic Ocean. Environmental Science & Technology, v. 51, n. 7, p. 3809-3815, 2017 

 12 K., K.  et al. Brominated flame retardants: sources, distribution, exposure pathways, and toxicity. Environmental Reviews2011.   

 13 LAW, K.  et al. Bioaccumulation and trophic transfer of some brominated flame retardants in a Lake Winnipeg (Canada) food web. Environ Toxicol Chem, v. 25, n. 8, p. 2177-86, 2006 

14 SORMO, E. G.  et al. Biomagnification of polybrominated diphenyl ether and hexabromocyclododecane flame retardants in the polar bear food chain in Svalbard, Norway. Environ Toxicol Chem, v. 25, n. 9, p. 2502-11, 2006 

15 VERREAULT, J.  et al. Flame retardants and methoxylated and hydroxylated polybrominated diphenyl ethers in two Norwegian Arctic top predators: glaucous gulls and polar bears. Environ Sci Technol, v. 39, n. 16, p. 6021-8, Aug 15 2005. 

16 Flame retardant ban signed into California lawChemical Watch 2019.