The Pollution in People: Flame Retardants in Gymnasts

A new study bolstered evidence that gymnasts are highly exposed to fire retardant chemicals in landing mats and foam cubes in landing pits used to practice tumbling and vaults.

Courtney Carignan and colleagues from Boston, Harvard and Duke universities measured concentrations of fire retardant chemicals in 11 elite gymnasts. The team found that the gymnasts had elevated exposures to several flame retardant chemicals, including chemicals linked to hormone disruption and cancer.

Exposure to several chemicals increased shortly after gymnastics practice and decreased hours later, pointing to gyms as a source of exposure. This study builds upon prior work by the researchers, showing elevated concentrations of another class of flame retardants, known as PBDEs, in gymnasts.

Over the past several decades, companies have added these and other chemical flame retardants to foam and electronics.There is growing concern about the harmful effects of many of these chemicals, in addition to evidence that they have done little to make products fire resistant.

Carignan found flame retardant chemicals in 25 of the 28 pit cubes she examined. Gymnasts are exposed when the pit foam crumbles, or volatilizes into the air.

In a press release, Carignan called for action:

As a former gymnast, I know that there are many benefits to gymnastics, and don’t think anyone should quit the sport based on our findings. However, I hope our findings will alert gymnasts and coaches to take precautions to reduce their exposure. We need to consider ways to achieve fire safety without the use of chemical flame retardants. Share this study with your local gymnastics studio manager and ask them to explore replacing flame retardant equipment with safer fire safety alternatives, which could include sprinklers, smoke detectors and clearly marked fire exits, among other things.

Carignan launched the Gymnast Flame Retardant Collaborative, where athletes, parents, coaches, scientists and physicians can exchange information about the issue. The website provides fact sheets for parents and gyms about the health hazards of flame retardant chemicals, and tips to reduce exposures.

The foam in tumbling pits is highly flammable, but gym fires are very rare. Carignan is studying ways to maintain fire safety without using chemicals. Simple measures like sprinkler systems could do the trick.

Carignan recommends that gymnasts wash their hands after practice to reduce the risk of ingesting flame retardants, and wear protective clothing and dust masks when handling pit cubes.

Duke University offers free testing for gym pit cubes and other foam household products. While gyms can purchase new flame retardant-free foam cubes, they infrequently remove and replace older foam cubes from the pits.

In addition to gymnasts, other athletes use foam pits for indoor training: skiers, snowboarders, skateboarders and BMX riders. Track and field events, and indoor rock climbing use foam landing pads with protective covers, but the flame retardant content of this equipment has yet to be studied. Indoor trampoline facilities, the sites of countless children’s birthday parties, are also a possible source of exposure.

And there are no U.S. restrictions on Firemaster 550 or phosphate-based flame retardants.

It may seem seem there is an endless stream of news about the unchecked use of harmful and unnecessary chemicals in consumer products. But there is a silver lining: Momentum is growing to remove toxic flame retardants from new products.

Major manufacturers have stopped adding these toxic chemicals to products. Five states have laws banning forms of a fire retardant, called chlorinated Tris, in some foam items. These states include Maine, Maryland, New York, Vermont and Washington. California just announced it will remove two Tris chemicals from children’s sleep products.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is also considering a petition to ban all flame retardants that contain bromine or fluorine from children’s products, household furniture and electronics.

However, the new study indicates that more work is necessary, as restrictions on new products will not clean up the existing problem in America’s gyms. 

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