Document Type



Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Publication Date



Environment International



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Last Page



Coaches spend long hours training gymnasts of all ages aided by polyurethane foam used in loose blocks, mats, and other padded equipment. Polyurethane foam can contain flame retardant additives such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), to delay the spread of fires. However, flame retardants have been associated with endocrine disruption and carcinogenicity. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) evaluated employee exposure to flame retardants in four gymnastics studios utilized by recreational and competitive gymnasts. We evaluated flame retardant exposure at the gymnastics studios before, during, and after the replacement of foam blocks used in safety pits with foam blocks certified not to contain several flame retardants, including PBDEs. We collected hand wipes on coaches to measure levels of flame retardants on skin before and after their work shift. We measured flame retardant levels in the dust on window glass in the gymnastics areas and office areas, and in the old and new foam blocks used throughout the gymnastics studios. We found statistically higher levels of 9 out of 13 flame retardants on employees' hands after work than before, and this difference was reduced after the foam replacement. Windows in the gymnastics areas had higher levels of 3 of the 13 flame retardants than windows outside the gymnastics areas, suggesting that dust and vapor containing flame retardants became airborne. Mats and other padded equipment contained levels of bromine consistent with the amount of brominated flame retardants in foam samples analyzed in the laboratory. New blocks did not contain PBDEs, but did contain the flame retardants 2-ethylhexyl 2,3,4,5-tetrabromobenzoate and 2-ethylhexyl 2,3,4,5-tetrabromophthalate. We conclude that replacing the pit foam blocks eliminated a source of PBDEs, but not 2-ethylhexyl 2,3,4,5-tetrabromobenzoate and 2-ethylhexyl 2,3,4,5-tetrabromophthalate. We recommend ways to further minimize employee exposure to flame retardants at work and acknowledge the challenges consumers have identifying chemical contents of new products.


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