A Curious Reason to Wash Your Hands

hand washing benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Hand-washing is an incredibly simple way to reduce your exposure to disease-causing germs and data demonstrates it may also reduce your toxic burden to flame retardant chemicals
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers and organophosphate flame retardant chemicals persist in the environment, bioaccumulate through the food chain and are associated with thyroid cancer, lower IQ and behavioral disorders in children
  • Organophosphate flame retardant chemicals are structurally similar to insecticides known to attack the nervous system in the same way as nerve agents
  • You may reduce your exposure at home by frequent cleaning, hand-washing and purchasing organic and green building materials and household products, including children’s toys and mattresses

By Dr. Mercola

Hand-washing is a simple and effective way to reduce your exposure to disease-causing germs, thereby lessening your chances of getting sick. Regular hand-washing may also reduce the risk associated with chemical exposures. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), you may decrease your child's exposure to flame retardant chemicals using simple hand-washing techniques.1

These chemicals are added to your furniture, insulation, construction materials and electronics to make the item less prone to burn. Alas, not only are they ineffective, but they also escape from the products into the air and attach to dust. In addition to being inhaled, these chemicals may also be ingested after being transported by your hands onto your food and into your mouth.2

The EPA understands the dangers inherent with flame retardant chemicals and encourages parents to have their children wash their hands frequently to reduce risks associated with exposure. If flame retardant chemicals were able to save lives from fire as the chemical industry leads you to believe, then firefighters would be the first to encourage their use.

Unfortunately, they do not save lives. Instead they become a source of chronic chemical exposure that can raise your risk of health problems. Firefighters are also exposed to unnecessary risks when fighting fires.3 Firefighters have disproportionately high rates of cancer compared to the general public and the International Association of Firefighters found exposure to fumes from burning flame retardant chemicals are at least partly to blame.4

Reduce the Presence of Flame Retardant Chemicals with Frequent Hand-Washing

A recent study examined two potential ways you may use to reduce your exposure to flame retardant chemicals.5 Researchers at the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health6 found washing your hands and cleaning your home frequently may lower your absorption or consumption of flame retardant chemicals. This was the first study to assess if performing these tasks would effectively lower exposure.

Senior investigator Julie Herbstman, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental health sciences, designed a behavioral intervention and enrolled 32 women, all mothers of young children. The participants were assigned to one of two interventions, either house cleaning or hand-washing. The researchers were intent on analyzing these two behaviors as dust is believed to be a primary method of exposure for getting into the human body.7

In the first week of the study, one group was asked to clean their homes thoroughly and regularly use microfiber mops, vacuums and microfiber cloths supplied by the researchers. The other group was instructed on hand-washing techniques, given instruction on the necessary length of time to wash and encouraged to wash more frequently, particularly prior to eating.8 

During the second week, each group added the other tasks to their duties. Researchers used urine samples and hand wipes to measure the amount of flame retardant chemicals in the body before the interventions and after each week. They discovered both interventions significantly reduced exposure.

Women who were cleaning the first week of the study had a 47 percent reduction in chemicals measured in their urine, while those who were washing their hands had a 31 percent reduction.9 Women who started the study with a higher than average level of flame retardants saw the largest reduction — up to 74 percent after just one week.

Manufacturers Forced to Switch

To comply with fire safety standards, flame retardant chemicals have been added to furniture and electronics since the 1970s. Originally, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were used as flame retardants in textiles, plastics, wire insulation and cars.10 As concerns rose the EPA issued a significant new use rule regulating the phase out of two common PBDEs.11

Concerns included the persistence of the chemicals in the environment, bioaccumulation in wildlife and toxicity to humans and the environment. The EPA defined the critical endpoint for concern as neurobehavioral effects in humans as well as ecotoxicity in fish, mammals, birds and invertebrates.12

New organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) have been substituted in consumer products since 2005. OPFR chemicals are linked to endocrine disruption, thyroid dysfunction and decreased fertility.13 The focus of the featured study was to evaluate how you may reduce your exposure to chemicals that pose a significant health risk to you and your children. Herbstman commented on the use of OPFRs, saying:14

"As people replace their old furniture, we've seen a reduction in exposures to the earlier generation of flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. Going forward, it's important that we continue to study new organophosphate flame retardants to understand what they do to our health and how to protect ourselves, both on an individual and population level."

Flame Retardant Chemicals Persist in Your Environment

OPFRs are also persistent in the environment. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives15 used adult volunteers from North Carolina who completed questionnaires and provided urine and hand wipes samples as well as dust samples from their home. An analysis of the data showed the presence of OPFRs were widespread and hand-to-mouth contact or dermal absorption was likely an important pathway of exposure.

A study16 published four years after the move from PBDEs to OPFRs showed a high prevalence of OPFRs, sometimes greater than levels of PBDEs, in household dust. Researchers measured levels as high as 1.8 milligrams per gram of dust and recommended further studies to evaluate the potential health effects from dust exposure, particularly in children. A comprehensive study17 led by Duke University found organophosphates in urine, and demonstrated a steady rise in samples collected between 2002 and 2015.

The rise also may be attributed to the use of the organophosphates as a pesticide. OPFRs are structurally similar to organophosphorus insecticides, which are known to be neurotoxic.18 Although different organophosphates are used for each purpose they share structural similarities.

According to National Geographic,19 “Organophosphates attack the nervous system in the same way as nerve agents like sarin … [and] are so toxic to humans that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken steps to limit their availability to the public.”

OPFRs are an additive to a material, meaning they are not chemically bound and may more readily leach into the surrounding environment. Results of other studies20 suggest the replacement of aromatic OPFRs have levels of toxicity comparable to PBDEs, previously removed from furniture, carpeting and toys due to their toxicity.

Risks with Exposure to Flame Retardant Chemicals in Your Home

Mitigating factors for risk to organophosphates are age and exposure. Children are not able to eliminate the toxins from their system as easily as adults. Additionally, as noted by the Environmental Working Group:21

“Flame retardants can build up more in the bodies of younger children than in older kids or adults because they breathe in more air and are exposed to more dust particles relative to their body size than adults. The chemicals, widely used to treat upholstered furniture and even cushioning in baby products, can escape and accumulate in household air, and in dust on floors where toddlers and babies play. Children's frequent hand-to-mouth activity can also increase their exposure.”

Bioaccumulation of flame retardant chemicals over the course of a lifetime may have serious health consequences. Human and animal studies have linked organophosphates to cancer, hormonal changes and problems with fertility.22 One study23 demonstrated adverse effects in the development of the early life stage of the zebrafish.

Another24 demonstrated a negative effect on Leydig cells, found in the connective tissue surrounding sperm-producing tubules of the testicles, to a greater extent than the brominated flame retardants they replaced. Researchers found bioaccumulation in rainbow trout and effects on the hormonal system of the fish.25 Yet another study found exposure to OPFRs affected the function of sphingolipids, believed to protect human cell surfaces against harmful environmental factors.26

Dendritic cells, those in contact with the external environment found in the skin, lining of the nose, lungs, stomach and intestines, are also affected by OPFRs. Specifically, Triphenylphosphate (TPHP) and Tris(1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate (TDCIPP) demonstrate immunotoxicity.27

The number of thyroid cancers diagnosed in the U.S. has risen significantly in recent years.28 Rates have nearly tripled in the last date decade, making papillary thyroid cancer (PTC) the most rapidly increasing cancer in the U.S. Research29 presented at the Endocrine Society's 2017 99th Annual Meeting revealed exposure to flame retardants in the home is associated with this common type of thyroid cancer.30

The researchers analyzed household dust and found those living in homes with elevated levels were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with PTC. Exposure to organophosphate flame retardant chemicals is also linked to neurodevelopmental delays, reduced IQ scores and behavioral problems in children.

Research31 demonstrated children whose mothers were exposed to flame retardant chemicals during pregnancy had a lower IQ and were more prone to hyperactivity disorders. The researchers measured levels of PBDEs in women at 16 weeks pregnancy and then monitored the children's health until age 5. Older carpeting and furniture are major sources of flame retardant PBDE.

Steps You May Take at Home

There are several steps you can take to reduce your OPFR burden. As you replace PBDE-containing items in your home, select products naturally less flammable, such as leather, wool and cotton. Look for organic and green building materials, carpeting, baby items and upholstery free from toxic chemicals to help reduce your overall exposure.

As the featured study indicates, consistent cleaning with materials to trap dust, such as microfiber cloths and mops, help reduce your exposure from inhalation, and consistent hand-washing, especially before meals, helps to reduce your absorption from hand to mouth exposure.

It is important you don’t use hand sanitizers and wipes with triclosan as they increase the permeability of your skin, trapping the chemicals present and ushering them cross the skin barrier. Application on mice demonstrated absorption32 and others have measured percutaneous absorption through urinary excretion.33

You may spend up to one-third of your life sleeping, snuggled in your mattress and pillow. However, this sanctuary may be a major source of OPFR toxicity as all mattresses sold in the U.S. are required to be highly flame retardant, often accomplished using flame retardant chemicals.

The manufacturers are not required to reveal the chemicals used to make the mattress flame retardant. Since most mattresses use petroleum-based, highly flammable polyurethane foam, they may be treated or wrapped in flame retardant chemicals. When choosing a mattress, look at the labels. Some terms like “natural” mean virtually nothing, while others like “organic” may be misleading. Instead, consider these labels Consumer Reports compiled and what they really mean.34

Best Mattress Labels

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): At least 95 percent of the mattress materials must be certified organic. Certain substances, including flame retardants and polyurethane (common in memory foam products), are prohibited.
  • Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS): Applies to latex mattress and ensures only organic latex is used.

Good

  • Oeko-Tex Standard 100: This label sets limits on the emission of toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Chemical flame retardants, colorants and allergenic dyes are prohibited.

Labels with Some Value

  • CertiPUR-US: Applies only to polyurethane foam and prohibits certain substances, such as PBDE. Testing is required for formaldehyde and other toxins.
  • Greenguard: The finished mattress must be tested for specific emission limits of formaldehyde and other VOCs.
  • Greenguard Gold: The same as Greenguard but with tighter emission limits.
  • Organic: A mattress may be labeled organic even if only parts of it are organic (and other parts contain harmful chemicals). For instance, the label may read "made with organic cotton."
  • Organic Content Standard 100: This applies to the percentage of certified-organic materials in the mattress. It also ensures proper tracking of organic cotton from its source to the finished product.

Once you purchase a new mattress a simple way to reduce your exposure to toxic emissions is to allow the mattress to air out before you sleep on it. According to Consumer Reports:35

“Prices for mattresses with green claims run from as little as $600 to more than $25,000 for luxury versions. In general, expect to pay around $2,000 for a queen-size mattress — more for one meeting GOTS or GOLS.

Whichever mattress you buy, to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, air it out for at least 48 hours before using it. That probably means you’ll have to dispose of the old mattress yourself (rather than letting the retailer haul it away when it delivers the new one), but you might thank yourself in the long run.”

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