Nowadays, it seems that we are married to our electronic devices — for better or for worse. Maybe for worse, because not only do they affect our personal relationships, but toxic chemicals have been found on them that can negatively affect our physical health.
In a study published recently in Environment International, scientists from the University of Toronto identified organophosphate esters (OPEs) on cell phones of two groups of Canadian women aged 18-44 years. These chemicals are often used either as flame retardants or plasticizers that make materials such as polyvinyl chloride more flexible and durable.
OPEs have been used for many decades, but they are increasingly being used now as replacements for other harmful flame retardants banned by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other international regulating bodies. What concerns the researchers – led by Miriam Diamond, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences in the Faculty of Arts & Science at U of T – is that there is growing evidence linking OPEs to health problems. Scientists from the U.S., Canada, China and Norway are finding connections between exposure to OPEs and thyroid cancer, fertility problems and impaired brain development in children.
For their study, the researchers examined the urine and the wipes taken off the hands of 51 premenopausal women from Toronto and Ottawa. They were looking for traces of OPE metabolites. Similarly, air and floor dust samples were taken from the bedroom and the most-used room of their homes.
Next, the researchers looked for OPEs on the handheld and non-handheld electronic devices of the women by wiping the surfaces. Handheld devices included the women’s cell phones, tablets and laptops, while their non-handheld devices included home phones, desktop computers, television sets and stereos.
Typically, handheld devices contain more plasticizers and flame retardants than non-handheld ones. It was no surprise for the research team to find higher levels of toxic chemicals here.
The team discovered that the women with elevated levels of OPEs on their hands and in their bodies also had high levels of these toxic chemicals on their cell phones and other handheld electronic devices. Diamond cannot state with certainty though whether these toxic chemicals came from within the devices, or the devices accumulated the chemicals from across the different environments where the women usually spend their day, such as their offices or cars. Whichever the case, these toxins most likely found their way into the body through the hands, then through the mouth.
It makes a lot of sense to wipe handheld devices periodically to remove toxins found on their surfaces, more so given that children and adults constantly use them. In addition, Diamond suggests that we wash our hands frequently since washing reduces our exposure to these chemicals.
Safety standards for electronic products at present focus on thermal, electrical, optical and acoustic properties. They do not specify how component materials should be screened for toxicity or potential to harm. The research team’s findings come at a time when more and more people are calling for the examination of the environmental and human health impacts of electronics. This timely study is a “canary in the mine” — alerting us to the toxins present in things that have become inseparable from us.
More significantly, Diamond points out that “we need to be aware of — and try to reduce — how much we use our handheld devices, especially by kids.”