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Flame Retardants in Household Dust

by Wellness Letter  

Here’s another reason to wash your hands frequently and keep your house clean: This can reduce your exposure to risky flame retardants, according to a study in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology in June 2018.

Commonly added to upholstered furniture, carpet padding, insulation, electronics, and other products to prevent or slow the ignition of fires, flame retardants have been linked to hormone disruption, reduced fertility, thyroid problems, and cancer. Studies have found that the chemicals often end up in household dust, which is easily picked up on hands (and then put in the mouth) as well as inhaled. Not surprisingly, then, the chemicals have been found in human tissue, blood, urine, and breast milk.

In the study, researchers from Columbia University examined exposure to seven commonly used organophosphate flame retardants in 32 women. Initially, flame retardants were found in urine samples from almost all participants. For the first week, half the women were instructed to clean their homes more than usual, half to do extra handwashing. The house-cleaning group was given vacuums and microfiber mops and cloths to reduce dust levels. The handwashing group was given soaps and told to wash their hands more often, especially before meals. During the second week of the study, all women were asked to do both extra handwashing and house-cleaning.

After the first week, urine samples from both groups showed that levels of most of the flame retardants had declined significantly, some by as much as half. After the second week they dropped even more. Women with above-average initial levels of the chemicals had the greatest decreases after the interventions.

Of course, the women spent time outside their homes, notably at work, where they could also be exposed to chemicals. “While handwashing is not specific to the home, individuals may or may not be able to control the cleanliness of the work places or transit methods,” the researchers noted. Still, “house cleaning and handwashing can help to reduce, but not eliminate, exposure to flame retardants.”

Cleanliness is especially important in households with children or pregnant women, since young children and fetuses are most vulnerable to the chemicals’ effects.

For more information about flame retardants, including other steps to take to reduce your exposure, visit the website of the Green Science Policy Institute, which was founded in Berkeley and has led the campaign against these chemicals since 2008.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.