You’ve heard it over and over again over the past few months. Wash your hands! Hopefully, you were already washing your hands regularly long before COVID-19 appeared and flipped the script in 2020, but maintaining proper hand hygiene has taken on a whole new viral meaning lately.
Viruses, however, aren’t the only potential threat lurking between our fingers. A new study from the University of Toronto is providing yet another reason to break out the soap more often. Harmful and toxic flame retardants may be hiding on your hands and smartphone.
How did these chemicals enter your home in the first place? Virtually all plastic TV cases produced since the 1970s are chock full of halogenated flame retardants. These chemicals travel from the TV to indoor air and dust, then from there to hands, cell phones, and any number of other electronic devices.
So, let’s say there are some flame retardants on your phone as you read this. Hypothetically, each time you touch your phone for the rest of today you’ll be exposing yourself to these chemicals.
“It’s well-known that viruses are transferred between surfaces and hands,” says co-author Miriam Diamond, a Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto. “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.”
Flame retardants have been linked to numerous serious health problems. Cancer, thyroid problems, and reproductive issues, just to name a few. Furthermore, one specific type of retardant known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers is known to be harmful to children especially. Kids exposed to this chemical extensively have experienced IQ deficiencies and behavioral problems.
The researchers say they were surprised to find that smartphones and other handheld electronic devices like tablets housed a lot more of these chemicals than larger devices like desktop computers. Even polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which have been banned for years, were found all over several modern cell phones. The only plausible explanation for this finding, the study’s authors say, is that those old chemicals traveled from people’s hands to their phones.
You’re probably wondering why TVs are a source of flame retardants. Well, back in the 1970s the first round of “instant-on” televisions were produced. It probably sounds strange today, but up until then, TVs had to warm up for a few minutes before displaying an image. At that time, TVs relied on cathode rays, so those new instant-on models had to immediately heat their cathode ray tubes after being turned on. This ended up causing hundreds of TV fires.
In response, flammability standards were raised extensively for TVs, prompting manufactures to cover the outside casings of televisions in flame retardants.
The big problem here, of course, is the fact that manufacturers are still using copious amounts of flame retardants on modern TVs despite current models representing little to no fire risk at all. Flame retardants may have been somewhat justifiable decades ago, but a shiny new flatscreen nowadays just isn’t a viable fire threat.
Making matters worse, these retardants aren’t attached, or “bonded,” to the TV casings at all. So, the chemicals slowly but surely seep into the surrounding environment.
“If a flame retardant is used in the TVs, we then find it throughout the house, including on the hands of the resident,” comments co-author Lisa Melymuk, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Chemistry at Masaryk University.
If 2020 has taught us anything, this grim year has been a sobering reminder that just because we can’t see a threat that doesn’t mean it’s not there. There’s an entire microscopic world, potentially filled with chemicals, viruses, and bacteria, playing out literally on our fingertips. It’s a disconcerting thought, but at the end of the day, all it means is everyone should be washing their hands regularly.
All that being said, the research team also believes that manufacturers need to change their practices as well.
“However, to reduce health harm from flame retardants, the electronics industry should stop their unnecessary use,” concludes Arlene Blum, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute. “Fire safety can be achieved by innovative product design and materials instead of the use of toxic chemicals that can remain in our homes–and in us–for years to come.”
The full study can be found here, published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.