Our homes are filled with furniture, objects, and surfaces that contain organophosphate ester (OPE) flame retardants including cellphones and other electronic devices.
While these flame retardants serve an important purpose to reduce the risk of fire, little is known about their health impacts. This is especially worrisome because of the presence of OPEs on home surfaces, in the air, and even in the human body and because OPEs have become the main replacement for banned and harmful brominated flame retardants.
New research presented at the American Chemical Society Spring 2019 National Meeting & Exposition shows that these semi-volatile compounds travel easily on our hands which helps explain why they are so abundant in the home.
“The toxicity of OPEs is not well understood,” said Miriam Diamond, the leader of the study. “Studies are emerging that associate some OPEs with developmental effects in kids, fertility problems and possibly some types of cancer.”
High concentrations of OPEs have been measured in indoor air and dust, but the researchers wanted to study how these compounds primarily spread through the home and where they originate.
“We wondered if electronic devices, especially those that heat up during use, such as computers or printers, might be important sources of flame retardants and plasticizers,” said Diamond.
For the study, the researchers collected samples from the air, dust, and surfaces of 51 homes in Canada. Urine and hand wipes were also taken from the owners of the homes, and the samples all came from female participants. Mass spectrometry was used to measure the concentrations of OPEs in the samples.
The indoor environments from home to home had similar chemical profiles, and OPE concentrations from handheld electronic devices were the same as larger computers and electronics.
“We went into this study expecting to find that surface wipes of different electronic devices would have elevated levels of one or a few flame retardants and plasticizers that were added to their casings during the manufacturing process,” said Diamond says. “Instead, we found that most of the OPEs, and other flame retardants and plasticizers, were in most of the surface wipes, floor dust and on participants’ hands, as well as on the electronic devices.”
Contact with cellphones was also a reliable predictor of OPE metabolite concentrations in urine which indicates that flame retardants are absorbed through the skin when people use their cellphones.
“We believe that hands are central to moving chemicals around the indoor environment,” said Diamond. “This makes intuitive sense — your hands touch everything. It’s also consistent with how infectious organisms can be spread by hands that touch multiple surfaces.”
The researchers recommend frequently washing your hands and cleaning your cellphone to limit and reduce exposure to the potentially hazardous compounds.