An introduction to flame retardants in the gymnastics training environment
High levels of flame retardants have been found in the foam, air and dust of gymnastics training facilities in the United States [1,2,3]. Levels in gym air and dust were 1-2 orders of magnitude higher than have been found in homes, offices or vehicles [3,4,5]. Foam from the loose foam pit were found to contain flame retardants at percent by weight concentrations and appear to be an important source of flame retardants in the gym environment . Landing mats and the vault runway have been found to contain elevated levels of bromine, indicating the presence of brominated flame retardants [3,6]. A recent study found flame retardants in 25 of 28 pit cubes collected from across the U.S. .
As the name suggests, flame retardants are chemicals that are added to products to meet flammability standards. There are many types of flame retardants and they are used in many types of products including electronics casings, building insulation and polyurethane foam. Pit cubes and landing mats contain polyurethane foam, as does most upholstered furniture and many baby products [3,7,8].
Not all flame retardants are necessarily problematic, however halogenated and organophosphorous flame retardants used have been associated with environmental and health concerns. Both of these types of flame retardants are commonly used in polyurethane foam, and have been identified at high levels in U.S. gyms [3,7].
Because flame retardants are additives, and not chemically bound in foam, they migrate into air and dust through volatilization and degradation . This occurs even when the foam is covered by fabric or leather upholstery, and occurs throughout the lifetime of the product.
International concern about flame retardants has led to over a decade of scientific study. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a class of flame retardants that were used extensively in polyurethane foam in the U.S. over several decades. They began to be phased out of use in the U.S. in 2005 and were banned by the European Union. However other halogenated and organophosphate flame retardants replaced PBDEs in polyurethane foam .
Scrutiny of flammability standards found that use of flame retardants in polyurethane foam offer little improvement in fire safety in upholstered furniture, as the upholstery burns first. Studies also indicate that products containing flame retardants can generate smoke that contains higher levels of carbon monoxide and other toxins. This led to revision of California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB-117), an influential flammability standard for residential furniture. The revised standard, TB117-2013, relies on a cigarette smolder test of the composite product (upholstery, barrier material and foam) rather than an open flame test on the foam alone. Upholstered furniture can pass this test without the use of additive flame retardants. We are told that many foam manufacturers in California and other parts of the U.S. are no longer using flame retardant chemicals in foam for upholstered furniture and this may carry over to foam mats in some cases.
Other sports use loose foam pits as well: trampoline parks, parkour, skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding and BMX biking. Track and field events such as the pole-vault and high jump use above ground pits. Climbing gyms and martial arts studios use mats and equipment containing polyurethane foam. We have not yet investigated flame retardant use or exposures for these sports. We have been told that the pits used for pole-vault and high jump typically do not contain flame retardants, but have yet to confirm this information.
Figure 1. Flame retardants found in foam from U.S. gymnastics training facilities. Pit cubes purchased before and after the 2005 phase out of PentaBDE. Use of PentaBDE decreased whereas use of replacement flame retardants including components of the Firemaster 550® mixture (TPHP, EH-TBB and TBPH) and TDCIPP increased.