Are there flame retardants in health care settings?

by Zhuoyuan Chen


This summer I’m working with Duke’s Superfund Research Center to investigate the use of flame retardant chemicals in health care settings. I am currently an MEM (Master of Environmental Management) student in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.  The advisor of my master’s project, Dr. Heather Stapleton, introduced me to the Superfund Center, which focuses on the study of a series of toxic chemicals like PAHs, flame retardants and heavy metals and their effects on developing organisms. Since the research is highly related to my master’s project I applied to the internship program and joined the group in May.

As I mentioned, flame retardants are the focus of my current project. When we talk about flame retardants, we should consider that these chemicals are almost everywhere around us. And recent studies (you can read this journal article and this news story) have found that they can negatively impact our endocrine systems. Because of the wide use of flame retardants in consumer products and their potential adverse health effects, sensitive populations are particularly a concern. Sensitive populations include children and pregnant women, but my work is focusing on a less studied group – people in health care settings, which may include infants, patients with sensitive immune responses, and the elderly.

A lot of my time this summer is being spent in a chemistry laboratory. In the lab, I’m measuring the amount and types of flame retardant chemicals used in health care furniture (like chairs, mattresses and cubicle curtains) rather than studying their toxicity. However, a lot of other issues related to flame retardants, like how they would enter human body, what the potential adverse effects are and if they would accumulate in human tissue are covered by some other research in Dr. Heather Stapleton’s laboratory.

To be more specific about my project, I have two major tasks. The first task uses a survey sent to different manufacturers producing health care furniture. From internet searching and the contacts given by Duke Clinics and Health Care without Harm (the health care organization I am working with in this project), I located 18 manufacturers producing health care furniture. In this survey I am asking about the companies use of flame retardants in their products (like flame retardants ingredients in their products). It is not hard to imagine that it is really challenging to conduct such a survey.  After sending out written requests to complete my survey, no one responded. Currently I am working with Noelle Wyman, a research associate in the Research Translation Core, to start conducting phone interviews with several companies.

The second task involves laboratory research that is investigating the types and amounts of flame retardants in some specific products. Products tested to date were collected from samples previously used in health care clinics and hospitals in North Carolina. To further assess flame retardants in the indoor environment, we are also collecting dust samples from hospitals and health clinics to analyze them for flame retardant levels, as an indication of potential exposure.

After this summer, I hope to have results from both tasks completed (survey and lab testing) and then generate a report or a list of green products free of flame retardant chemicals. It is my hope that this list could help reduce exposure to flame retardants in people in health care settings.