Hand Washing and House Cleaning Can Rid Your Body of Flame Retardants

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Some women experienced a 74 percent decrease in flame retardants in their bodies after a week of more frequent cleaning.

Flame retardants are chemicals added to furniture, camping gear, insulation, construction materials, and electronics to suppress flames and prevent fires. The chemical and manufacturing industries say these retardants are important for saving lives, but health and environmental organizations have a different perspective. Studies have linked flame retardants to disrupted endocrine systems, infertility, problems with thyroid function, and cancer, and they're notorious for persisting in the environment.

A new study, just published today in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, examines potential ways to reduce the flame retardants found in our bodies as a result of our household belongings. It's a common-sense question, since most of us are not in a position to replace all our furniture and carpets with chemical-free alternatives.

The study looked at two possible actions one can take to reduce exposure: more frequent house cleaning and hand washing. The researchers wanted to analyze these two behaviors because dust is thought to be the primary pathway of exposure for flame retardants getting into the human body.

"Since flame retardants are not chemically bound to consumer products, they leach into the external environment and are inadvertently ingested through dust exposure, primarily via hand-to-mouth activity."

Thirty-two women, all mothers of young children, participated in the two-week experiment. For week 1, half was told to clean their homes more thoroughly and regularly, while the other half was instructed in hand washing technique. For week 2, each half added the other task to their daily duties. From the study:

The women were "incentivized with flame retardant-free cleaning products, mops and buckets, microfiber dust cloths, and handheld vacuums without a HEPA filter. They were asked to use the vacuum as much as they liked, with the suggestion that they open windows while vacuuming to reduce exposure to recirculating dust."

In terms of hand washing, participants were "given instructions on proper washing techniques and necessary length of time, and incentivized with flame retardant-free soaps" and told to wash their hands more often, particularly prior to eating.

The researchers took urine samples and hand wipes to measure the flame retardants in the body prior to the interventions and after each week. They found that both cleaning and hand washing did significantly reduce exposure to flame retardants. After the first week of cleaning, the women saw a 47 percent reduction in retardants measured in their urine, while the hand washers had a 31 percent reduction. Women with higher than average levels of retardants prior to beginning the experiment saw the biggest reduction, up to 74 percent after one week.

While these findings are hopeful and practical, they don't solve the whole problem. None of the interventions were able to lower exposure below detectable limits, which indicates that individual behavior cannot solve the problem entirely, but it is good to know that they help.