An Unlikely Pair: Gymnastics & Toxic Chemicals

July 28, 2016
Gymnast doing handstand on the balance beam
By Special Guest Contributor, Dr. Courtney Carignan, Ph.D.

Almost a decade ago I remember being shocked to learn that the foam equipment in my gym likely contained flame retardant chemicals. Like many competitive gymnasts, I started the sport at a young age and by the time I was 18 had spent over 6,000 hours in the gym. I never dreamed that chemicals like this were in my gym, or that the chemicals in the foam would be getting into my body and the body of everyone else in the gym.

As I learned, the science shows that some flame retardants can harm the developing brain and others are linked to cancer and reproductive problems. Flame retardants, I also learned, are used in many products including polyurethane foam (like in upholstered furniture) as well as the plastic casings of electronics. If flame retardants are used in foam, I recall wondering, does this also include the foam found in landing mats and the loose foam pit commonly used by gymnasts? As a former gymnast, I knew that as the foam ages, it creates a gritty dust that gets all over the gym, especially in the loose foam pit. The dust clings to your skin and can get into the eyes and mouth. I was concerned about what this could mean for gymnasts, so I conducted a study as part of my doctoral thesis. Three years ago I graduated and published that work reporting elevated levels of flame retardants in blood samples from a team of collegiate gymnasts as well as in the air, dust and foam of training equipment. Public concern about health impacts has led to the phasing out of some flame retardants. But other chemicals have taken their place in the foam used in gyms.

This month I published a follow-up study in Environment International that showed that these replacement flame retardants are getting into the bodies of gymnasts. We found these chemicals at higher levels in urine samples collected after practice compared to before practice among the same 11 collegiate gymnasts. One of the replacement flame retardants, triphenyl phosphate, was found in foam of their gym’s loose foam pit as well as in foam from 25 of 28 foam samples collected from foam pits in 11 U.S. gyms. Triphenyl phosphate is suspected of being a developmental obesogen, which means changing how babies develop in the womb. In rodent studies, prenatal exposure to TPHP can stimulate development of fat cells and interfere with bone cell development. It is a component of the Firemaster 550® mixture, a flame retardant used to replace PentaBDE when it was phased out of production in 2005. We found PentaBDE only in pit cubes purchased prior to 2005. PentaBDE accumulates in the body and will persist there for many years. In population-based studies, women with higher levels of PentaBDE in their blood took longer to get pregnant and their children were more likely to have developmental behavioral disorders such as ADHD. In a previous study, we reported elevated levels of PentaBDE in blood samples collected from the same 11 collegiate gymnasts. Average levels in their blood were 4 to 6 times higher than the general population. The levels of flame retardants we found in gym dust were significantly higher than what we find in homes, offices or vehicles. From other research we know that flame retardants easily move from foam to dust to people, and that they enter the body when dust on the hands is accidentally ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.

Our findings are particularly concerning for competitive gymnasts and coaches who spend a lot of time in the gym. 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. However, I hope our findings will alert gymnasts and coaches to take precautions to reduce their exposure. In the short term, that means washing their hands with soap and water after practice (not just hand-sanitizer) to help reduce exposure.

In the long-term, that means considering both chemical exposures and fire safety in strategies aimed at protecting health. To that end, I’m currently facilitating a study of pit cubes and fire safety that will provide useful information for gyms. In the mean time, it may be useful to begin a conversation with your gym about these concerns. For example, you could ask them to adopt a hand-washing policy and to try to purchase equipment free of flame retardants in the future. If you’re a gymnast, coach or gym owner you can help with our research by taking a short survey. Learn more and receive updates by visiting the Gymnast Flame Retardant Collaborative website or Facebook page.

Many thanks to everyone who has participated in or helped facilitate this research as well as to my collaborating researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health and Duke University. Courtney Carignan, Ph.D.Postdoctoral Fellow Department of Environmental Health Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Photo above, credit: Lilyana Vynogradova /