Handwashing Reduces Exposure to Flame Retardant Chemicals

Jul 9, 2018

Credit fda.gov

We've all heard that washing your hands is the best way to protect against infectious germs like the cold and flu. Now, new research suggests that it may also help lower your exposure to potentially harmful synthetic chemicals, like flame retardants.

For the past 15 to 20 years, Julie Herbstman, an Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Columbia University Center for Children's Environmental Health, has been studying exposure and health effects of flame retardant chemicals.

Her recent study found that although data shows that everyone has at least a little bit of flame retardant chemicals in their system, hand-washing and consistent cleaning of a living space can help prevent more from entering your bloodstream.

People get exposed to flame retardants in a variety of different ways. For instance, the foam in couches typically has flame retardant chemicals, and those can peek through fabric when it gets old. If a child – who is less likely to wash their hands than an adult - touches that, or if dust from the chemicals in the foam gets in the air, it can get in your bloodstream.

That’s how it can happen. Here’s what it can do when it’s in your body.

“We and others have found that flame retardants can influence a child's cognitive development... There's also been evidence that it can disrupt thyroid hormones,” Herbstman said.

Herbstman's study found that exposure reduction was the highest or the strongest among people who had really high exposure of these chemicals to start with.

“So if your exposure started out pretty low, washing your hands and cleaning your house helped, but it was really among the people who started out high that you could really make a meaningful difference. You could essentially over half your exposure.”

And as it turns out, the guidelines for cleaning aren’t unattainable for most. It’s not hospital-grade sanitizing, it’s more about cleaning your house a few times a week, versus once a month.

While hand-washing and cleaning doesn’t outright eliminate exposure - which at no level is found to be safe - it’s certainly a start.