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Is there a link between cellphones and harmful flame retardants?

Organophosphate esters (OPEs) (chemical compounds) are found in products we use daily and on surfaces we encounter regularly; from our upholstered chairs to waxes used on floors. While OPEs have been around for decades, they are appearing in more and more products since they have commonly replaced other, now-banned flame-retardants considered more harmful.

Recent studies, however, show that OPEs have many health problems of their own. These include problems with in-vitro fertilization, decreased IQ and working memory, and a higher likelihood of papillary thyroid cancer.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) scientist Dr. Liisa Jantunen joined colleagues from the University of Toronto, Cancer Care Ontario and Health Canada to conduct a study investigating the relationships between OPE concentrations in air, dust, hands, electronic product wipes and urine samples. Environment International recently published their findings, entitled: “Are cell phones an indicator of personal exposure to organophosphate flame-retardants and plasticizers”?

Analyzing OPEs

A total of 51 women, between the ages of 18 and 44 participated in the study, providing urine samples, hand wipes, and air and dust samples from their home.

Researchers found there was a correlation between the levels of OPEs on participant hands, their hand-held electronic products notably cell phones, and their internal levels of OPE metabolites. However, the researchers notes that this does not necessarily mean that cell phones are a source of OPEs.

In fact, researchers believe there may be another more plausible explanation.

“We suggest that cell phones may be indicators of exposure rather than sources of these OPEs {…} Cell phone wipes could be a reasonable indicator of internal exposure via hand-to-mouth contact and/or dermal absorption, given the frequent contact of most people (including children) with their cell phones” the study states.

Since OPEs accumulate on our hands and given that many people use cell phones and other handheld electronic devices frequently, researchers believe it is plausible that OPEs are transferred from hands to cell phones and other devices but that the devices themselves could also be a source of some of these compounds too.

“Cell phone wipes could provide an integrated indicator of exposure to flame retardants and plasticizers accumulated from multiple microenvironments, particularly since people are in frequent contact with their cell phones that are infrequently washed,” the study concludes.

What’s Next?

ECCC scientist Dr. Liisa Jantunen hopes the result of this and other studies ultimately lead to regulatory change. She notes that the Chemical Management Plan, under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, is moving toward implementing some regulations when it comes to OPEs. To-date, regulations have been selective both when it comes to the type of chemicals as well as the products that are regulated (e.g., children’s toys).

Dr. Jantunen also indicated that the scientific community is asking questions about flammability standards.

“Are there better ways of flame retarding materials than by adding all of these chemicals? Are the standards relevant for today? Do the flammability standards achieve their goal of reducing deaths and injury from fires?”

Health Canada is also working with Dr. Jantunen on a new study to determine the impact of people moving into new build homes, to assess chemicals in the home environment.

While this study may provide more information for policy makers, in the short term, Dr. Jantunen has a number of recommendations for people concerned about the findings.

“Frequent hand-washing is important as is bathing every day since your body absorbs OPEs” she says. “Think about what products you use and put on your body and when purchasing something new, really think about possible alternatives, for example, organic wool mattresses, and solid flooring such as tile and hardwood. And think twice about giving an electronic device to your children who are vulnerable to the effects of these compounds.”

You can read the full paper in Environment International here.

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