Surprising Source Exposes Office Workers to Questionable Chemicals

Working 9 to 5 could add to your body's chemical burden, a new study shows. Here's what to do about it.

July 13, 2011

Wash those hands: Hand-washing at work cuts down on your exposure to fire retardant chemicals.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Could sitting in your office for 40 hours a week make you infertile? A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggests that it could. Flame-retardant chemicals, which have been linked to female infertility, learning disorders, and thyroid problems, are cropping up in offices, the study found. And though fire retardants may sound like a helpful kind of technology, government researchers are finding that the fabrics currently used on furniture are just as effective at resisting flames as the added chemicals are, putting office dwellers at an unnecessary risk.


THE DETAILS: In this new study, researchers recruited 31 volunteers who worked in offices for longer than 20 hours a week and tested their offices and their blood, and used special hand wipes to see if they came into direct contact with pentaBDE, a flame-retardant chemical that was used in polyurethane foam until 2005, when it was banned because it had been linked to learning disabilities and decreased birth weight. The researchers also tested for octaBDE (also no longer used) and decaBDE, two flame retardants added to plastics used in electronics. The volunteers filled out questionnaires, as well, relating to how frequently each person washed his or her hands.

All three forms of the flame-retardant chemical were detected in 100 percent of dust samples, however, although it's been out of commercial use for six years, pentaBDE was the most commonly found flame retardant in both blood and hand-wipe samples, and at the highest levels. That's most likely because it's often found in carpet padding and other furniture that utilizes recycled foam. In addition, the higher the levels of penta- and decaBDE found in dust, the higher the residues from hand wipes tended to be, meaning that higher dust levels expose office workers to higher levels of the chemicals. The good news is that people who washed their hands more than four times a day had 3.3 times lower levels of pentaBDE on their hand wipes than people who washed less often.

WHAT IT MEANS: You can't escape fire retardants just because you leave your house. But before you quit your job, know that the levels found in the offices in this study are still much lower than what's found in the average U.S. home, says Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a longtime researcher of flame-retardant chemicals. In this study, less than 1 milligram of pentaBDE was found per gram of dust, while the average home has 3 milligrams of the chemical per gram of dust. "And the home is worse because you're always in your home," she adds.

The chemicals don't belong in either location, says Blum, "Chemicals that are going into humans and staying in our bodies should not be used in consumer products, certainly not if there's no benefit," she says. And there really is no benefit. Since the California law setting flammability standards was enacted in 1975, research has shown that 60 percent of fire reductions have come not from chemically treated foam, but from other fire-safety measures, including self-extinguishing cigarettes, better smoke detectors, and better sprinkler systems in offices and multifamily dwellings. A fire-safety expert named Vytenis Babrauskas, PhD, founder of a company called Fire Science and Technology, has been working with Blum to push for a better national fire-safety standard. He has tested both standard untreated foam and chemically treated foam and found that both burn at about the same rate.

The California law that requires all residential furniture foam to resist flames has been adopted in varying forms across the country, and it's essentially become a national standard. Attempts have been made, unsuccessfully, to change it. However, hope could come in a new flammability standard being developed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), says Blum. The CPSC standard would require furniture to use upholstery fabrics, not treated foam, to prevent fires. According to preliminary research, 85 percent of the furniture currently on the market would be able to meet the standard without using treated foam. Many of the synthetic fibers and blends of fibers used in upholstery are already strong enough to resist an open flame. And CPSC officials suspect that, rather than spend money on flame-retardant chemicals, manufacturers whose products don't already comply would simply change to different upholstery materials, or add some type of barrier fabric, such as Kevlar or melamine fibers, between the upholstery and the foam.

If you want to stay healthy in your office and in your home (and your car, and on planes, and all the other places where flame retardants are used), here are a few tips:

• Wash your hands! As this new study shows, hand washing is an easy way to lower your body burden of certain chemicals, and is particularly effective against pentaBDE.

• Buy metal computers and components. The other two flame retardants in this study, octa- and decaBDE, are used in plastic casings. So metal-encased computers and monitors will most likely have much lower levels of them (plastic interior components may still be treated), says Blum.