Toxic chemicals calling: Cell phones as a source of flame retardants

December 4, 2018, University of Toronto
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Cell phones—much has been written about their detrimental effects on attention spans, stress levels and dinner table conversations. People are in constant contact with their cell phones at all hours of the day. New research from the University of Toronto (U of T) suggests they could also be a source of toxic chemicals, or at least an indicator of the chemicals to which people are exposed.

In a study published today in Environment International, scientists from U of T 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. It is the first study to identify handheld electronic devices as a potential source of exposure to organophosphate esters, chemicals often used either as flame retardants or plasticizers that make materials such as polyvinyl chloride more flexible and durable.

"We are concerned with these chemicals as they have been linked to neurotoxicity, decreased fertility and thyroid problems," says Miriam Diamond, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences in the Faculty of Arts & Science at U of T and lead author of the study. "What we don't know for certain though is whether electronic devices are the source of the chemicals or an indicator of total exposure from other sources, or both."

The researchers found correlations between levels of organophosphate esters on and levels on hands and in urine. Further, they found that levels of the and plasticizers were higher on such as cell phones and tablets, than non-handheld electronics such as televisions and desktop computers.

As such, handheld devices like cell phones may be sources of some of these compounds, but also may serve as time-integrated samplers, providing an indication of exposure across the different environments where people spend time each day—for example, their homes, cars and workplaces.

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," says Diamond. "The organophosphate esters identified in this new study are often used as replacements for the banned chemicals, and increasing evidence indicates that these replacement chemicals are harmful as well."

Diamond says that given the ubiquity of these devices that are in so many people's hands all the time, from kids to adults, "periodically wiping down your should lower the levels of these toxic chemicals on the and hence on your hands. She also adds that "we need to be aware of—and try to reduce—how much we use our handheld devices, especially by kids."

Explore further: Study finds toxic flame retardants in children's car seats

More information: Congqiao Yang et al, Are cell phones an indicator of personal exposure to organophosphate flame retardants and plasticizers?, Environment International (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.10.021

Related Stories

Study finds toxic flame retardants in children's car seats

December 3, 2018

In a new study, Indiana University scientists found toxic flame retardants in newly manufactured children's car seats, sparking concerns about children's health. Of the 18 children's car seats tested, 15 contained new or ...

NYC toddlers exposed to potentially harmful flame retardants

January 23, 2017

Researchers at the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) within the Mailman School of Public Health report evidence of potentially harmful flame retardants on the hands and in the homes of 100 percent ...

Debate on banning organohalogen flame retardants heats up

September 26, 2018

Hundreds of everyday household items, from laptop computers to babies' high chairs, contain flame retardants to prevent the objects from catching fire. Recently, several groups petitioned a U.S. agency to ban flame retardants ...

Recommended for you

A glimmer of hope for the world's coral reefs

December 10, 2018

The future of the world's coral reefs is uncertain, as the impact of global heating continues to escalate. However, according to a study published today in Nature Climate Change, the response of the Great Barrier Reef to ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dsylvan
not rated yet Dec 04, 2018
From abstract:

"Conclusions

Handheld electronic devices, notably cell phones, may either be sources or indicators of OPE exposure through hand-to-mouth and/or dermal uptake."

It's a start I suppose--but just barely. So are cell phones a source of OPEs or not? What about the protective covers? Are these protecting our poor little cell phones from OPE contamination from us? ;)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.