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.