Flame Retardants and Gymnastics

Competitive US gymnasts can be exposed to high levels of flame retardants through the foam-containing equipment (e.g., pit cubes, landing mats) used in gyms, according to a recent study [1]

Flame retardants are added to these products, and many others, in an effort to improve fire safety. However, they do not stay in the foam. They evaporate into the air and degrade into dust. They get on our hands and we accidentally ingest them. We also inhale them and they can absorb through our skin.

Once in our bodies they remain there for a long time. It takes years for some types of flame retardants to be eliminated.

There is concern that flame retardants are not good for our health. Some types can disrupt levels of thyroid hormone in the body. Thyroid hormone is important for development and metabolism, so its disruption could cause a number of health problems. The types of potential health effects is a topic of ongoing research. Some research has found population-wide decreases in fertility (e.g., taking longer to get pregnant) [7-8] and others have found increases in developmental behavioral disorders such as ADHD  [3-6]. Concerns among public health professionals have caused some types to be phased out of use and people are advised to try to limit how much enters their bodies.

One way to reduce how much flame retardant enters your body is by washing your hands, with soap and water, after practice and before you eat. Accidentally ingesting dust is an important way that flame retardants get into our bodies [2], so this is an easy way that gymnasts and coaches can help protect themselves while other recommendations and solutions are explored.

It is unclear whether purchasing flame retardant free foam is currently an option for gyms, as they may be required to meet certain fire codes. However, regulations are changing in a way that may provide a solution for pit cubes. Under a revised standard (TB117-2014), polyurethane foam can be free of flame retardants provided there is a fire resistant cover. Because certain fabrics are naturally fire resistant, re-engineering covered pit cubes without the use of additive flame retardants is a potential solution. Other solutions may be to install a sprinkler system in the gym and/or adapt other fire safety measures.

Take Action

1) Institute a hand washing policy at your gym by sharing this information and hanging posters that encourage hand washing.

2) Send in a piece of a pit cube for free testing.

3) Join our email list to be notified by email when new recommendations occur and for opportunities to participate in future research.