uOttawa study shows alarming health risks associated with new man-made pollutants

Posted on Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Foam bubbles

Man-made chemicals and their effects are a source of growing international concern. We don’t know enough about the ecological and human risks they pose, other than the fact that exposure to persistent pollutants is believed to be linked to metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

A new study by Jan Mennigen, Assistant Professor in the department of Biology at the University of Ottawa, has proven that these concerns are justified: Two recently identified man-made contaminants (F-53B, used in the chrome-plating industry in China, and OBS, found in flame retardant products used in China), have similar effects than PFOS, a substance that was globally restricted 10 years ago.

“Our analysis revealed that the newly detected environmental contaminant F-53B has a higher potency for metabolic disruption than a similar substance whose use has already been severely restricted,” explained Dr. Mennigen. “Studies like ours are likely only the beginning when it comes to uncovering the risks posed by these oftentimes unmonitored replacement contaminants.”

When chemical substances are identified as harmful, man-made alternatives are needed to provide substitutes.

Dr. Mennigen and his collaborators investigated the biological effects of these new contaminants on zebrafish embryos, which share many metabolic similarities with humans. During their development, the embryos were exposed to sub-lethal concentrations of three substances (F-53B, OBS and PFOS), and the results raised concerns over potential long-term metabolic diseases linked to deficits in the control of glucose levels, such as diabetes.

“When concentrations were environmentally relevant, meaning they had the potential to release contaminants into the environment, F-53B in particular profoundly affected energy balance and metabolism in early development,” added Dr. Mennigen. “These effects manifested themselves both at the level of the whole organism and the molecular level.”

The substances known as F-53B and OBS are primarily used in China, but since F-53Bs has been shown to spread through the air, it makes its use an international issue.

They are alternatives to PFOS, an industrial chemical which has been restricted at the 2009 UN’s Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The toxic effects of PFOS are widely known, and despite its restriction, it is still present in the environment due to its persistence.

This study is the result of an international collaboration that was conducted over the last year in Dr. Jan Mennigen’s laboratory at the University of Ottawa, with the help of a Wenqin Tu, a visiting scholar from the Jiangxi Academy of Sciences in Nanchang, China. Graduate students Ruben Martinez (a visiting PhD student from Spain), Dan Kostyniuk (Masters student in science) and undergraduate student Christine Hum were also involved in this research.

The study, Bioconcentration and metabolic effects of emerging PFOS alternatives in developing zebrafish, was recently published in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science and Technology.


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Justine Boutet
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