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Flame-Retardant Chemicals Common in Offices

Study: Frequent Hand Washing Appears to Reduce Exposure to Hormone-Disrupting PBDEs
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Office cubicle with foam chair

(June 30, 2011) -- Hand washing at work doesn’t just keep germs at bay.  A new study shows that office workers who frequently lather up have lower levels of hormone-disrupting flame-retardant chemicals on their hands and in their blood.

The study tested for polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in 31 Boston-area offices and found the chemicals, which are used to keep everything from office chairs to carpeting to computers from catching fire, in every work space tested.

Additionally, researchers swabbed the hands of office workers and took blood samples to check for the presence of PBDEs.

Workers who washed their hands at least four times daily had lower levels of PBDEs on their skin, and their blood levels of some kinds of PBDEs were more than three times lower than workers who washed their hands less frequently.

Studies in animals and people suggest that exposure to PBDEs may affect the thyroid and brain. The chemicals, which have been widely used for decades, have also been linked to developmental delays in children and lowered testosterone levels in men. In one study, women with high PBDE levels had a harder time getting pregnant compared to women exposed to lower levels.

U.S. manufacturers voluntarily stopped using some kinds of PBDEs, called penta-PBDEs, in 2004. But because many of the products they made are still in use, the chemicals, which may be stored in the body for years, are still around. Another class of PBDEs, deca-PBDEs, is set to be phased out by 2013.

“It’s still everywhere. It’s still in people’s homes and in people’s offices and probably in people’s cars, and even though we stopped making it, we still have this residual problem,” says study researcher Thomas F. Webster, DSc, associate professor of environmental health in Boston University’s School of Public Health.

One of the office buildings tested in the study was newly constructed, Webster says.

Picking Up PBDEs at Work

PBDEs seem to shed into the environment and are found in high levels in dust, but researchers haven’t always understood how they get into the body.

“We were trying to figure out how PBDEs get out of products and into people,” says study researcher Deborah Watkins, a doctoral candidate at the Boston University School of Public Health.

For the study, researchers recruited 31 adults who worked at least 20 hours a week in eight different office buildings around Boston.

Most of the study participants were women, and they were on average about 49 years old.

Investigators vacuumed the floors of their offices and checked the collected dust for PBDEs.

They also swabbed the hands of study volunteers at least an hour after the last time they washed their hands. They saved and analyzed those gauze pads for PBDEs.

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