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Flame-Retardant Chemicals Common in Offices

Study: Frequent Hand Washing Appears to Reduce Exposure to Hormone-Disrupting PBDEs

Picking Up PBDEs at Work continued...

Blood samples were taken and analyzed for 11 different types of PBDEs.

Study participants also answered a battery of questions about their work and personal habits, including the average number of hours they spent at work each day and how often they generally washed their hands.

Penta-PBDEs, the ones that were discontinued in 2004, were found on the hands of all study volunteers and in all the office dust.

And people whose offices had the highest PBDEs in the dust were also the most likely to have high levels on their hands.

But workers who were frequent hand washers, scrubbing at least four times each day, had blood levels of PBDEs that were about three times lower than people who washed their hands less frequently.

“One of the major results we found here is this very strong association between what we found was on people’s hands and what was in their blood,” Webster says.

That probably means that people aren’t coming into contact with PBDEs by inhaling them.

“The more likely scenario is that you’re absorbing it through your skin or you’re getting it on your hands and then you’re eating it,” he says.

“Your desk has dust on it. Your keyboard’s got dust on it. Actually everything in your whole office has a thin film of organic material on it,” Webster tells WebMD. “And so there’s PBDEs in that and then you get it on your hands and you eat a sandwich and you get it in your mouth.”

The study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Computers, Electronics Are Common Office Sources

Most previous studies have looked at household levels of PBDEs.

But a study published last year by researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor looked at 10 commercial and institutional buildings in that state and found levels of the chemicals “at the upper range” of previously reported levels. Levels were especially high in buildings that housed computer servers.

Flame retardants are widely used to insulate electronics, especially products that get hot when they’re turned on, like computers.

But strikingly, both studies found the discontinued penta-PBDEs in newly constructed and furnished buildings, and researchers say they can’t fully explain why because they didn’t try to trace the source of the PBDEs to individual office items.

“Just because stuff isn’t manufactured doesn’t mean it isn’t in use anymore. It could be that people brought in old stuff, old furniture, and old computers,” he says.

The good news, Webster says, is that there appears to be a way to cut down on the exposure to flame retardants.

“You can actually wash your hands,” he says. “Washing your hands is really great public health advice. It cuts down on infectious disease, and it looks like it may reduce exposure to these kinds of chemicals, too.”

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