Toxic Chemicals Calling: Cell Phones as a Source of Flame Retardant Exposure

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BERKELEY, CA —  December 4, 2018

Cell phones — much has been written about the detrimental effects of these devices on our attention spans, our stress levels, and our dinner table conversations.  New research suggests that your cell phone could also be a source of toxic chemicals, or at least an indicator of the chemicals to which you are exposed.

In a peer-reviewed article published today in Environmental International (link), Yang, Diamond and co-workers from the University of Toronto found that levels of several toxic chemicals on the cell phones of Canadian women aged 18-44 were related to levels of those chemicals in their bodies and on their hands.  This is the first study to identify handheld electronic devices as a potential source of exposure to organophosphate esters, chemicals often used as flame retardants and plasticizers.  Exposure to this family of chemicals has been linked to neurotoxicity, decreased fertility, and thyroid problems.

“We’ve known for decades that chlorinated tris is a mutagen,” said Dr. Arlene Blum of UC Berkeley and the Green Science Policy Institute, referring to TDCIPP, one of the chemicals measured in the new study. “It was removed from baby pajamas in the 1970s, but unfortunately it and other potentially toxic organophosphate esters are still used in other products.”

The researchers found correlations between levels of organophosphate esters on electronic devices and levels on hands and in urine. However, they are not yet sure whether those electronics are the source of the chemicals or an indicator of total exposure from other sources. The team found that levels of the flame retardants and plasticizers were higher on handheld devices than non-handheld electronics such as televisions and desktop computers. As such, handheld devices like cell phones may be serving as time-integrated samplers, providing an indication of chemical exposure across the different environments where people spend time each day (e.g. homes, cars, workplaces, etc.).

In any case, exposure to the chemicals is concerning.  “This study adds to the growing body of evidence that humans are highly exposed to organophosphate esters”, explained Dr. Tom Bruton, of the Green Science Policy Institute.  “Given the suspected toxicity of these chemicals, manufacturers should be actively investing in safer alternatives, including designs that don’t require the use of additive flame retardants.”

These new findings come amidst calls for increased focus on the environmental and human health impacts of electronics.  Existing electronics industry standards cover thermal, electrical, optical, and even acoustic product safety, but do not specify how materials should be screened for possible toxicological impacts.

Earlier this year the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission granted a petition to ban the use of certain harmful flame retardant chemicals in electronics and other products (LINK).  The organophosphate esters identified in this new study are often used as replacements for the banned chemicals, and increasing evidence indicates that the replacement chemicals are harmful as well (LINK).

What to do? According to study author Dr. Miriam Diamond, “periodically wiping down your cell phone should lower the levels of these toxic chemicals on your device and hence on your hands.”

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