for National Geographic News
Flame retardants that are suspected carcinogens have been found in some of Australia's Tasmanian devils, researchers announced last week.
The find triggered local media reports suggesting that the chemicals might be linked to the mysterious cancer that has been killing the rare marsupials for more than a decade.
A study conducted by the Australian government's National Measurement Institute took samples of fat from 16 living and dead devils, some of which suffered from the fatal devil facial-tumor disease (DFTD).
DFTD forms disfiguring tumors on the animals' faces and necks that cause them to die from starvation within about six months of showing symptoms.
The scientists found "high" levels of hexabromobiphenyl ether and "reasonably high" levels of decabromobiphenyl ether—chemicals used to treat electronics, textiles, and furniture.
Very high concentrations of such chemicals have been shown to cause cancer in lab mice, although no definitive evidence exists that the substances cause cancer in humans.
Warwick Brennan, a spokesperson for the Save the Tasmanian Devil project, said that expert analysis is needed before any conclusions could be drawn.
"The preliminary examination from our guys was that there weren't significant differences [of the levels of some compounds] between the diseased and non-diseased animals," Brennan said.
"But we're not toxicologists; we need experts to look at the data and get some meaning."
Cause and Cure?
Tasmanian devils are meat-eating marsupials that live primarily on Australia's island of Tasmania, just south of Melbourne (see map).
The animals' mysterious illness is one of only two known cancers able to spread like a contagious disease.
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