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Newly-Discovered Pollutant Haunting Homes - Scientists Find New Member of Toxic Chemical Family Everywhere They Look

October 30, 2018

BLOOMINGTON, IN —  October 30, 2018 Ghosts and phantoms may not be the only invisible threats lurking in our neighborhoods this Halloween. Researchers at Indiana University have discovered a previously unidentified, potentially toxic chemical in air, water, and homes around the Great Lakes region. In a peer-reviewed article published today in Environmental Science & Technology (link to come), the researchers report that exposure to the mysterious contaminant is widespread, and may be of particular concern for toddlers.

The chemical is an organophosphate, a family of spooky substances that are frequently toxic and can disrupt sex hormones and the nervous system. Despite the health risk, and the fact that the researchers found the chemical in all 20 homes that they sampled, this chemical was previously unidentified in the scientific community.

“My concern is human exposure to this pollutant,” said Dr. Marta Venier, lead author of the paper and Associate Scientist at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. “That it is commonly found in house dust, air, sediment, and water, means we are all being exposed, with young children likely having the highest exposures.” Dr. Venier explained that, though these samples were collected in the Great Lakes region, similar levels of the pollutant probably exist across the entire US.

Little is known about where this chemical is used and how it gets into the environment. “There is no requirement that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in most consumer products,” explains Dr. Joe Charbonnet of the Green Science Policy Institute. “We are exposed to untested chemicals through contact with computers, clothing or even dust and air. The health effects and even existence of scores of these chemicals may be unknown to environmental scientists.” The results of her study are evidence of ineffective chemicals management.

The article’s authors believe that this chemical, tri(2,4-di-t-butylphenyl) phosphate (or TDTBPP for short), may be used as a flame retardant or a plasticizer. No toxicity studies have been conducted on it, but similar chemicals showed various toxic effects.

“It is not surprising that this chemical was previously unknown,” said Dr. Tom Bruton of the Green Science Policy Institute. “Manufacturers will often stop using one chemical when studies reveal its negative health effects, only to replace it with a very similar chemical whose health effects are not known that eventually is found to be toxic. This phenomenon is called regrettable substitution.”

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