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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Competitive gymnasts can be exposed to high levels of flame retardants through the foam equipment used in gyms

Posted on December 13, 2013

By Courtney Carignan, PhD

I became interested in flame retardants and their impact on public health while studying at Boston University. My background as a competitive gymnast alerted me to the possible exposure of retardants in the gym. This led me to put the two together and conduct a study on gymnasts’ exposure to flame retardants in the gym environment.

We found levels of a potentially toxic brominated flame retardant, PentaBDE, in the bodies of eleven collegiate gymnasts that were almost three times higher than those in the general population [1]. This is most likely due to flame retardants being present in the foam used in gymnastics equipment (e.g., pit cubes and landing mats) [1] and because competitive gymnasts spend a lot of time practicing new skills into a loose foam pit. The women in our study reported spending over 10 hours per week doing gymnastics and had been gymnasts for the past decade.

Although PentaBDE was phased out of use in 2005 because of health concerns, it is still present in old equipment. Newer foam equipment can contain other flame retardants that may also be harmful [2]. Some of these replacement flame retardants (TDCPP, Firemaster 550) are being phased out of use due to potential health effects.

On average, Americans have the highest levels of PentaBDE in their bodies in the world. This is because they were added to the foam of most couches, office chairs and vehicle seats. They escape these products, enter the air and dust of our indoor environments and enter our bodies. Other flame retardants continue to be used in these products, as well as many other applications including the plastic casings of electronics (TVs, computers, etc.) and foam building insulation.

Although our study did not examine health effects for gymnasts, studies of Americans suggest that PentaBDE can influence behavioral development in children [3-6] and may be associated with small decreases in fertility [7-8] (e.g., taking a longer time to get pregnant). Studies in animals suggest PentaBDE alters levels of thyroid hormone in the body [9]. These are preliminary results and are still under scientific study.

As a precaution, the public health community recommends people limit their exposure to these chemicals, particularly children and those approaching reproductive age.

Gymnasts may be able to reduce their exposures to flame retardants by washing their hands with soap and water after practice and before they eat, as previous research suggests that accidentally ingesting dust is a way that flame retardants get into our bodies [10]. We advise gymnasts to avoid cleaning activities involving a loose foam pit. For more information please visit

We are not recommending that anyone change gyms or stop doing gymnastics. There are many health benefits to gymnastics and we understand that foam equipment is necessary for ensuring physical safety. Follow-up research is needed in a larger population of gyms and gymnasts.

An important long-term goal is to identify alternatives to using flame retardants in foam. There is currently a debate regarding the efficacy of flame retardants at improving fire safety. Other informative resources on this topic include the HBO documentary ‘Toxic Hotseat’ and the Green Science Policy Institute website.


  1. Carignan CC, Heiger-Bernays W, McClean MD, Roberts SC, Stapleton HM, Sjödin A, Webster TF. Flame retardant exposure among collegiate U.S. gymnasts. 2013. Environ. Sci. Technol., 10.1021/es4037868.
  2. Stapleton, H. M.; Sharma, S.; Getzinger, G.; Ferguson, P. L.; Gabriel, M.; Webster, T. F.; Blum, A., Novel and high volume use flame retardants in US couches reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE phase out. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2012, 46, (24), 13432-13439.
  3. Eskenazi, B.; Chevrier, J.; Rauch, S. A.; Kogut, K.; Harley, K. G.; Johnson, C.; Trujillo, C.; Sjödin, A.; Bradman, A., In utero and childhood polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) exposures and neurodevelopment in the CHAMACOS study. Environ. Health Perspect. 2013, 121, (2), 257-262.
  4. Hoffman, K.; Adgent, M.; Goldman, B. D.; Sjödin, A.; Daniels, J. L., Lactational exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers and its relation to social and emotional development among toddlers. Environ. Health Perspect. 2012, 120, (10), 1438-1442.
  5. Gascon, M.; Fort, M.; Martinez, D.; Carsin, A. E.; Forns, J.; Grimalt, J. O.; Marina, L. S.; Lertxundi, N.; Sunyer, J.; Vrijheid, M., Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in breast milk and neuropsychological development in infants. Environ. Health Perspect. 2012, 120, (12), 1760-1765.
  6. Roze, E.; Meijer, L.; Bakker, A.; Van Braeckel, K.; Sauer, P. J. J.; Bos, A. F., Prenatal exposure to organohalogens, including brominated flame retardants, influences motor, cognitive, and behavioral performance at school age. Environ. Health Perspect. 2009, 117, (12), 1953-1958.
  7. Harley, K. G.; Marks, A. R.; Chevrier, J.; Bradman, A.; Sjödin, A.; Eskenazi, B., PBDE concentrations in women’s serum and fecundability. Environ. Health Perspect. 2010, 118, (5), 699-704.
  8. Johnson, P. I.; Altshul, L.; Cramer, D. W.; Missmer, S. A.; Hauser, R.; Meeker, J. D., Serum and follicular fluid concentrations of polybrominated diphenyl ethers and in-vitro fertilization outcome. Environ. Int. 2012, 45, 9-14.
  9. Bondy, G. S., et al. Toxicologic and immunologic effects of perinatal exposure to the brominated diphenyl ether (BDE) mixture DE-71 in the Sprague-Dawley rat.” Environ. Toxicol. 2013, 28, (4), 215-228.9.
  10. Watkins, D. J.; McClean, M. D.; Fraser, A. J.; Weinberg, J.; Stapleton, H. M.; Sjödin, A.; Webster, T. F., Exposure to PBDEs in the office environment: evaluating the relationships between dust, handwipes, and serum. Environ. Health Perspect. 2011, 119, (9), 1247-1252.


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