The chemical in question is something called tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate, otherwise known as TDCPP. It's a chemical that prevents flames from catching on in furniture made from polyurethane foam, but it's also used in numerous other applications. That could be why a new study published in Environmental International just found disturbingly high levels of it in office workers.
The Most Toxic Thing in Your House?
The study's authors collected dust samples from 31 people's homes (the bedroom and the main living area), their cars, and their offices. The levels of TDCPP in cars was triple the levels researchers found in the study participants' homes and about 1.5 times higher in their offices. But it was the levels in offices that most closely predicted how much TDCPP the study participants had in their bodies.
It's not clear where the flame retardants are coming from, says Courtney Carignan, lead author and doctoral candidate at Boston University School of Public Health. Most flame retardants are added to polyurethane foam, which is found in furniture and carpet padding. But TDCPP is also added to building materials, hard plastics that could be used to make furniture, and polyester fabrics.
And though her study provides enough evidence to figure out why these chemicals are so prevalent, it's still too early to know what this exposure is doing to you. "We know very little about the health effects of TDCPP, even in laboratory studies and not even in animal models," she says, "but we do know enough to be concerned."
Flame-Retardant Chemicals Create Unhealthy Homes
The state of California has included TDCPP in its Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, and research from Duke University suggests that its chemical structure is nearly identical to a pesticide linked to ADHD and childhood brain cancers. Another study linked high levels of TDCPP in the body to lower sperm counts.
Local laws and fire codes that govern offices and other public spaces make flame retardants nearly impossible to avoid, so it's unlikely you'll ever be free of these chemical pests. But here are a few precautionary steps you can take:
• Wash your hands. Flame retardants seem to spread via hand-to-mouth exposure. In fact, in a small look at a subsample of participants, Carignan and her colleagues noticed that levels of TDCPP were highest in people who washed their hands fewer than six times per day, compared to others who washed their hands more frequently.
• Dust! Hand-washing isn't a foolproof protection, she adds, because there are other ways flame retardants can enter your body, such as inhalation. Damp-mopping your desk, your electronics, and other surfaces in your office can help keep chemical-laden dust from getting into your lungs.
• Renovate if you can. This might not be an option for all office dwellers, but buying new polyurethane-foam-free furniture and replacing your carpets with hardwood flooring will help get flame retardants out of your immediate surroundings.