Anyone who has ever struggled with knowing which plastic items they can or cannot place in their recycling bin will appreciate the complex task facing Professor Rob Hale and his students at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Hale began studying plastics in the 1990s after he and Marine Scientist Mark La Guardia discovered high levels of flame retardants in fishes from the James River. They quickly realized these compounds, added to household plastics to reduce their flammability, were somehow escaping their confines and entering the aquatic environment.
Subsequent groundbreaking research by Hale’s team and others revealed high levels of flame retardants in wastewater, e-waste sites, sewage sludges, soils, sediments, and indoor dust; as well as in minnows, earthworms, insects, birds of prey, deep-sea squid and other organisms. Related research—based on concerns that these chemicals persist in the environment and tend to accumulate up the food chain—revealed health impacts in both wildlife and people, and led to worldwide limitations on the use of the most troublesome flame-retardant compounds.
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