Sentinel cats

Coal miners, until the 20th Century, kept canaries near them in mines to provide early warning of toxic gasses in the work place. Canaries, apparently, are especially susceptible to things like carbon monoxide and die before the concentrations become high enough to kill human miners. Scientists still use what are called “sentinel species” to foresee environmental hazards or epidemic illnesses.

Last week the “New York Times” published an article about the rise in hyperthyroidism in house cats. Apparently, the rate of our feline companions who succumb to an overactive thyroid has taken a steep statistical climb. Over 10 percent of kitties age 10 and older are diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, making it the most common endocrine disorder of pet cats. Researchers in Sweden and the US for the last 10 years have been studying the connection between cats and flame retardant chemicals, many of which are known endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Those cats with the highest levels of flame retardant chemicals in their blood are also cats who suffer from thyroid disease.

Beginning in the 1970’s many products in our homes were required to be treated with chemicals to make them burn less quickly. Mattresses, sofa, plastics, electronics, children’s sleepwear, all were required to be treated with chemical flame retardants. As more people have been exposed to these chemicals in our environment, the negative effects of exposure to them became apparent. Many of the treatments have been banned from use. Some have been replaced with chemicals just as hazardous as the ones replaced. Most homes still have treated sofas, mattresses and plastics. The dust  created as these foams and fabrics break down covers our floors and floats in the air. These compounds do not break down readily and are considered “persistent” pollutants in the environment. Cats and children crawl on the floor, put their paws and fingers in their mouths and ingest higher levels of these compounds than adult humans.

Besides thyroid disease, this class of chemicals is associated with development of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, altered hormone levels, reduced sperm concentrations, obesity, cancer and endocrine disruption. The risk associated with the use of any chemical must be weighed with the benefits. Many fire fighter organizations are now speaking out against the use of fire retardants, citing the low effectiveness and the toxic fumes given off when treated objects burn.

Science tells us that these chemicals slow the rate of burning of textiles, plastics and building materials. It is business and regulators who told us they were safe to use and would save lives in case of fire. The technology of impregnating even our kids pajamas and stuffed animals created a new kind of risk.

There are many examples of the imprudent use of technology to solve a problem only to create new and possible more long lasting problems. Remember PCB’s, DDT, diethylstilbesterol, BPA’s, thalidomide, lead paints? Sometimes the application of technology gets ahead of the science. Or perhaps what is sometimes labeled“science” is research designed to prove the safety of a new technology before implementation and commercialization.

Science and technology are not the same thing.

Good science does not advocate for a product. The word “science” means knowledge, not profit. Good science is always open to disproving the latest theories. Good science is open and transparent and places no value on the results of research. Good science encourages peer review and replication of research. Technology is the application of science, it is not science. In too many cases, such as in the use of flame retardant technology, all of the unintended consequences of the application have not been considered before the application is commercialized.

Losing two of my old feline pets to overactive thyroids and diabetes is one thing. The possibility that a generation of children may have been exposed to the same risk factors from conception to adulthood, is frightening.

Miners listened to hear if the canary was still singing. We should be paying attention to the health of our cats.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains