A study conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health has found that competitive gymnasts face greater exposure to flame-retardant chemicals used to treat polyurethane foam in gym equipment. The chemical, known at PentaBDE, is known to affect brain development in children and fertility in women, as well as cause changes in thyroid hormones. It was phased out of production nearly a decade ago, says the research team, but older equipment treated with the chemical is still in use.
Published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the study analyzed a group of collegiate gymnasts and collected hand-wipe and blood samples before and after practice. They also measured concentrations of chemicals in the landing mats, pit cubes and other equipment from the practice gym and a second gym, as well as collected samples of dust. The concentration of PentaBDE in the gymnasts' blood was four to 6.5 times higher in the gymnasts than the level typically found in the general population, and two to three times higher after practice than before, suggesting that significant amounts of the chemical were being ingested during practice.
The team noted a variety of factors that could affect a gymnasts' exposure, including types and duration of training activities, and that further research with a larger sample size should be undertaken to further identify exposure risks and develop recommendations for reducing exposure. For now, the researchers recommend hand washing after practice and before eating to reduce the risk of ingesting flame-retardant chemicals.