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James R. Olson, PhD, and Diana S. Aga, PhD

James R. Olson, PhD (left), and Diana S. Aga, PhD, have created a new method that will make identification of flame retardants five times faster. 

‘One-Shot’ Analysis Speeds Identification of Toxins in Blood

Published October 16, 2015

A new “one-shot” method, developed by James R. Olson, PhD, UB Distinguished Professor of pharmacology and toxicology, and Diana S. Aga, PhD, professor of chemistry, will make identification of flame retardants five times faster.

“Due to breast milk’s high fat content, newborns are at potential risk as well. Mothers can transfer the compounds to their nursing infants during breast feeding.”
UB Distinguished Professor of pharmacology and toxicology

This new technique enables scientists to provide a more complete picture of how one class of brominated flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (BDE), and its hydroxylated (OH-BDE) and methoxylated (MeO-BDE) breakdown products, accumulate in our bodies.

Converting OH-BDEs Into Alternate Compounds

Before the “one-shot” method, researchers had to convert OH-BDEs into more easily detectable MeO-BDEs, which required each compound to be measured separately, resulting in time-consuming, expensive tests. 

The new method solves the problem by converting OH-BDEs into a similar, but alternate compound, allowing all three classes to be analyzed at once without conflicting measurements. 

“Our new one-shot analysis has found that the levels of OH-BDEs are retained in the blood serum of some women at levels higher than the original BDEs. The significance is heightened by reports that OH-BDEs may be more toxic than BDEs,” said Olson, Director of the Division of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Using the “one-shot” technique, researchers were able to test 37 forms of brominated flame retardants at once, a step forward for identification techniques, but still a fraction of the 209 possible forms of BDEs, the majority of which have not been studied, says Aga. 

Breakdown Products Potentially More Toxic

Researchers recently reported that an enzyme in the body is the culprit behind breaking down BDEs in our bodies into potentially more toxic OH-BDEs. The enzyme, which also plays a role in breaking down some medications, is present in everyone, but varies in amount and type. 

Large-scale studies have not been conducted on OH-BDEs because current methods for analysis cannot detect their presence easily in substances such as milk or blood, says Aga. 

As a result, most studies have focused on the presence of BDEs, meaning researchers know little about how much OH-BDEs and MeO-BDEs are in our bodies. The new “one-shot” method opens the door to studying these compounds in an efficient manner. 

Commercially Produced Chemicals Affecting Health

Brominated flame retardants are man-made chemicals that halt or slow the spread and duration of fire. They have been linked to brain development in children, negative effects on the thyroid and liver and symptoms similar to those of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Flame retardants are a class of emerging contaminants of concern to human health, and they are in our environment because they were produced commercially,” says Olson, who is also a professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health in the School of Public Health and Health Professions

Firefighters, perhaps the group most at risk since their equipment is covered in flame retardants, have even begun to speak out against their use in recent years, citing health risks.

Toxins Reaching Us Through the Environment

Several forms of BDEs are no longer in use in the U.S. and European Union, with bans starting in 2003, though products containing the compounds — everything from cell phones and televisions to couches and clothes — are still in use. 

Flame retardants don’t bind to electronics and fabrics, and easily wash or brush off, making their way into the air or public water supply. Once in the environment, they bioaccumulate along the food chain, reaching humans through consumption of contaminated fish, meat or other food products.

While flame retardants won’t bind to plastic or wool, they will stick to the fat. Foods high in fat, such as butter or cheese, have been found to contain these compounds. Once consumed, they bind to the fat in the body, taking years to be eliminated. 

Due to breast milk’s high fat content, newborns are at potential risk as well. Mothers can transfer the compounds to their nursing infants during breast feeding. 

This doesn’t mean new moms shouldn’t breast feed, says Olson, as the benefits of breast-feeding outweigh the potential risks for mothers who live outside of heavily polluted areas. But the presence of BDEs in breast milk should drive the public to be aware of these chemicals and their effects, he said. 

Collaborating Across the University

Lai-Har Chi, senior research support specialist in the Toxicology Research Center, co-authored the paper. 

Additional UB contributors to the study are Deena Butryn and Michael Gross, doctoral candidates in the Department of Chemistry. 

Portions of the research, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, were published in several journals this year, including Analytical Chemistry, Chemical Research in Toxicology and Analytica Chimica Acta.