Gymnasts exposed to flame retardants in foam safety equipment

Collegiate gymnasts may have been exposed to flame retardant chemicals from polyurethane foam safety equipment, such as pit cubes and landing mats, according to a small pilot study led by a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researcher. Flame retardants are associated with neurological and reproductive toxicity and cancer.

The study was published online July 6, 2016 in Environment International.

“As a former gymnast, I know that there are many benefits to gymnastics, and I don’t think anyone should quit the sport based on our findings,” lead author Courtney Carignan, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School, said in a statement. “However, I hope our findings will alert gymnasts and coaches to take precautions to reduce their exposure, and that they will encourage their gyms to purchase flame retardant-free equipment in the future.”

Carignan and colleagues at Boston University School of Public Health, Duke University, and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, analyzed 53 urine samples from 11 female college gymnasts from one gym in the Eastern U.S. Their findings included:

  • Gymnasts’ urine samples contained more of the chemicals after—rather than before—practice.
  • Flame retardants were found in 89% of foam sampled from 11 U.S. gyms.

An earlier study by the researchers found flame retardant chemicals in the air and dust of a gymnastics training facility in the U.S. and elevated chemical levels in blood samples from college gymnasts who practiced there.

The authors said gymnasts can reduce the risk of flame retardant chemicals entering the bodies by:

  • Washing hands with soap and water after practice (Hand sanitizer doesn’t remove flame retardants, they wrote.)
  • Wearing an N95-rated dust mask when cleaning the loose foam pit*
  • Encouraging gyms to purchase equipment without flame retardants

Read a press release about the study.

See the Gymnast Flame Retardant Collaborative website that Carignan launched for athletes, parents, coaches, scientists and physicians to exchange information about the issue and learn more.

Learn more

Exposure to common flame retardant chemicals may increase thyroid problems in women (Harvard Chan School press release)

Flame retardants associated with neurobehavioral problems in children
(Harvard Chan School press release)

Questioning the safety and necessity of flame retardants (Harvard Chan School news)

*Note: This text was updated on August 1, 2016.