Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a mouthful to pronounce, and apparently also a mouthful for the iconic bald eagle in the Great Lakes region. A recent study looked at Michigan's bald eagle population and found that they are the most contaminated birds on the planet based on banned flame retardant chemicals found in their livers. While the population of bald eagles in the region is stable, the compounds that they're exposed to have shown, in other birds, to impair reproduction, development, disrupt hormones, and even cause weird behavior.
Well, at least the most iconic animal in the United States won't catch on fire too easily...
More than four decades ago, companies started putting PBDEs into furniture cushions, electronics and clothing in an effort to slow the spread of flames if they catch fire. The chemicals quickly built up in people and the environment, and despite a phase-out starting in the early 2000s PBDEs are very persistent and have been found in the air, the dirt and also in people all around the planet.
The bald eagles were most likely exposed to leached chemicals that ended up in water, and then in the fish that they eat. Because they are at the top of the food chain, they naturally tend to accumulate higher concentrations than living things lower down. This also makes them early warning indicators for these types of pollutants.
And who else is at the top of the food chain? That's right, you and me.
Environmental Health News writes: "PBDE concentrations were "among the highest found in liver tissues of any wildlife,” the authors wrote, with one eagle measuring 1,538 parts per billion PBDEs in its liver. Americans have some of the highest levels of PBDEs in their bodies worldwide, with studies of U.S. breast milk finding median PBDE concentrations of about 30 ppb, though the types of PBDEs vary."