A team of scientists has discovered that chemicals used as flame retardants, which are harmful to humans, are found in the hair and nails. This could be a biomarker that could make it easier for scientists to study how much a person is exposed to flame retardants.

Flame retardants are usually added to foam, plastic, textiles and wood. Exposure to these chemicals in various forms has been linked to learning disabilities, neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine problems and obesity.

At present, scientists rely on blood, urine and breast milk samples to provide an idea of exposure levels. Compared with hair and nails, these conventional methods are more difficult to obtain.

The researchers collected samples from hair, toenails and fingernails from 50 students from Bloomington. They compared chemical levels found in the samples and those found in their blood.

They found a strong relationship between the levels of flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), found in hair and nails, and levels found in serum. The study also shows that higher concentrations of flame retardants are found in women, probably because they use nail polishes that contain those chemicals.

"Little is known about the human exposure to flame retardants, especially new classes of the retardants," said Amina Salamova, a researcher from Indiana University.

"The first step is to establish a relatively easy and reliable way of measuring chemical levels in people, especially children, and we've determined that hair and nails can provide exactly that," she added.

This group of chemicals has been widely used in various industries. They are persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals that can cause several health problems. These chemicals are neurotoxic and can cause neurobehavioral and developmental problems. In addition to that, they are known carcinogens.

Consumers can limit exposure to these chemicals through limiting consumption of animal fats and farmed-raised fish, cleaning floors with vacuums to trap fine particles of dust and keeping the house well-ventilated. Most importantly, make sure furniture or mattresses do not contain these chemicals, which may predispose the family to serious health problems.

Indiana University Collaborative Research Grant funded the study and was published online in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Photo: Moyan Brenn | Flickr 

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