Dirty Offices

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The Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) recently studied 31 offices in Boston and discovered that banned, dangerous flame retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are contaminating every one. The study, “Exposure to PBDEs in the Office Environment: Evaluating the Relationship Between Dust, Handwipes, and Serum,” was published June 30 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. “It is the first peer-reviewed research to correlate levels of PBDEs on people’s hands to concentrations in their blood,” says lead author Deborah Watkins. Exposure to PBDEs is linked with changes in thyroid hormones, impaired fertility in women, lowered levels of testosterone in men and neurodevelopmental deficits in children.

Before being voluntarily banned by U.S manufacturers in 2004, PBDEs were widely used in computers and other electronics, as well as in the foam padding in office chairs, furniture and carpeting, making it likely for the toxin to be present in offices throughout the U.S.

“While our study sampled a relatively small number of offices, the findings suggest additional research could indicate most offices are contaminated,” says the study’s co-author Tom Webster, Ph.D. “PBDEs are very pervasive but even in new offices with brand new furniture we found PBDE compounds present.” According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “The mechanisms or pathways through which PBDEs get into the environment and humans are not known yet,” but the BUSPH study suggests hand-to-mouth behaviors could play a significant role in how the toxin enters the body.

“This could be through eating without washing your hands,” explained Watkins. The study found that workers who washed their hands four or more times each day had three times lower concentrations of PBDEs in their blood than those who washed their hands less often. The study didn’t mention whether the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers could also lower exposure levels.

But considering the Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists PBDEs to be in “dozens of products in your home and office, from the padding below your carpet, to your bed, couch, cell phone and television,” washing one’s hands after being in contact with such a wide variety of common items would be impractically time-consuming. It’s also unlikely for most offices to invest in an entirely new 100% PBDE-free workplace, so human exposure to the compounds will continue for many years, the study’s authors noted.

Kathy Curtis, coordinator for the Alliance for Toxic Free Fire Safety, believes Congress should protect American citizens by reforming the existing laws on the use of harmful chemicals, which have been the same since 1976. The needed reformation could come from the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, which would require chemicals be proven safe before they can be used in products. “If flame retardant chemicals had to prove they were safe for human health, they’d never have been approved for use to begin with,” Curtis said.