Washing hands could reduce exposure to harmful flame retardants

New research has found that washing our hands could reduce our exposure to certain harmful chemicals

New Canadian research has found that washing our hands could help reduce our exposure to harmful flame retardants, which may be on the surface of our cell phones.

Carried out by researchers at the University of Toronto, the new study set out to identify major sources of halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) in 51 Canadian homes.

The researchers measured the levels of HFRs in the air, floor dust and surface wipes of electronic devices (e-devices), as well as on the hands of the participants.

They were surprised to find higher levels of HFRs on the surfaces of handheld devices such as cell phones and tablets than non-handheld devices like desktop computers. These products, which are also newer pieces of technology in the home, also had higher levels of a long-banned chemical called polybrominated diphenyl ethers on the surface than older products such as computers.

The researchers say that the HFRs could be coming from old and outdated "instant-on" cathode ray tube TVs, which were made back in the 1970s and are primary source of HFRs. The chemicals can move from the TV to indoor air and dust, then to the hands, and then to cellphones and other handheld devices when we touch them, making them secondary sources of exposure.

Once they are on a device such as a cellphone, the device continues to expose the users to these chemicals every time they touch it.

The researchers say that recently, many of us have become used to washing our hands more frequently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They add that the new findings, which are published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, suggest that this could be a good habit to keep up to also reduce our exposure to HFRs.

"If a flame retardant is used in the TVs, we then find it throughout the house, including on the hands of the resident," said co-author Lisa Melymuk.

"It's well-known that viruses are transferred between surfaces and hands," added co-author Miriam Diamond, "Our study shows that toxic chemicals like flame retardants do the same. That's another reason we should all wash our hands often and well."

Exposure to HFRs has been linked to various health problems including a lower IQ, behavioral problems and reading problems in children and behavioral problems, and a lower success rate of IVF in women.