New research presented at Life Sciences 2007 shows how the UK’s most commonly used brominated flame retardant, TBBPA, bio-accumulates within the human body, meaning that even low concentrations could cause cells to become cancerous and have dramatic effects on sperm count and allergic responses. At the event, the first joint meeting of the Biochemical Society, the British Pharmacological Society and The Physiological Society, Dr. Francesco Michelangeli explained exactly the process involved and called for research into alternative, less toxic, flame retardants.
The research is particularly significant as the use of a number of other flame retardants are being banned throughout Europe, due to their toxicity. TBBPA was considered the least toxic, and has, until now, been unaffected by bans. Brominated Flame Retardants (or BFRs) are known endocrine disrupters - ie. they interfere with the body’s endocrine system (our glands), adversely affecting hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone in the human body. However the exact mechanism involved in the disruption caused by TBBPA was not understood, until now.
Studies carried out by Dr. Francesco Michelangeli, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Biosciences, reveal not only that TBBPA harms sperm-nurturing cells to a greater extent than previously thought, but also exactly how it does this.
The research found that TBBPA binds to cell membranes within the human body, altering their biophysical properties, and more specifically their calcium permeability, by affecting calcium transport proteins. This disrupts the way in which the cell communicates within the body - a communication process which is called cell-signalling. Errors in cell-signalling are implicated in a wide range of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and auto-immune syndromes.
Dr. Michelangeli explains: “Flame retardants, like TBBPA, which contain bromine, are known endocrine disrupters – they belong to a group of chemicals which may affect the development of some kinds of cancers, can lower sperm counts and can harm the immune system, affecting allergic responses and conditions such as asthma and eczema. What my research shows firstly is just how they have this effect, and secondly, that low levels of TBBPA could have far more dramatic effects than previously thought, particularly on sperm counts, which have decreased by over 40% in the last 50 years. The findings should help us understand exactly what’s happening and why”.
“This research is particularly important as TBBPA, because it was thought not to be as toxic as other flame retardants, is the most widely used flame retardant in the UK. It’s used in the manufacture of most of the UK’s soft furnishings and electrical goods. My research proves that even low levels of TBBPA can harm cells in the body. It would be irresponsible to call for a ban on BFRs – they can save lives. However, we do need to keep on studying their effects and to work to find less harmful alternatives”.
The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum (BSEF) have raised serious concerns over Dr. Michelangeli's findings. Their response to this press release can be found here.