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The greatest danger to gymnasts may lie in their safety pits

December 13, 2013

When I think of the health problems that a gymnast may suffer from I imagine things like a broken arm or a sprained ankle. However, a new study has shown that gymnasts may be exposed to high levels of harmful flame retardant chemicals from the foam used in the safety pits and other equipment in their gym. It is more than a little ironic that the very measures undertaken to protect a gymnast’s health may ultimately lead to long-term health effects such as cancer and reproductive complications.

This study looked at eleven collegiate gymnasts in a U.S. gym and found that they had 4-6 times the levels of the flame retardant pentaBDE in their blood compared to the general U.S. population. PentaBDE has been linked to a wide array of health concerns including hormonal disruption, reproductive impairments and neurodevelopmental effects. It has also been found to be persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative, leading to a build-up in the bodies of humans and other animals. Due to the large number of studies pointing to both human health and environmental effects of pentaBDE exposure, this chemical was banned in several states and phased out of production in the U.S. in 2005. It was also added to the list of persistent organic pollutants under the Stockholm Convention, resulting in an almost global ban.

Until 2005, over 95% of all pentaBDE use was in the U.S. where it was mainly used in polyurethane foam to comply with California’s furniture flammability standard TB117. As polyurethane foam treated with flame retardants became ubiquitous on the US market, it ended up being used in in variety of products that were not covered by TB117. However, as this study shows, old foam containing harmful chemicals such as pentaBDE is still being used today.

Structure of PentaBDE

The main route of exposure to flame retardants is through inhalation or ingestion of contaminated dust. This study compared the levels of flame retardants on gymnasts’ hands before and after practice. Levels of several flame retardants, including pentaBDE, were found to be 2-3 times higher after practice than before, indicating exposure to these chemicals during practice. This could lead to exposure via food if gymnasts do not wash their hands following practice before they eat. Flame retardant chemicals were also found in air and dust samples from the gym.
This study illustrates the need for promoting awareness of hidden dangers in our environments. It is not safe to assume that exposure to a chemical is reduced or eliminated just because that chemical is no longer actively produced. We need to consider product lifecycle as well as production, and we must remain vigilant to ensure that continued exposure to harmful chemicals does not occur.

Read more about this in the Huffington Post and Environmental Health News.