A recent study determined that organophosphate esters (OPEs) — chemicals commonly used as flame retardants and plasticizers — could be on electronic devices.

According to Professor Miriam Diamond from U of T’s Department of Earth Sciences and her co-authors, there is a correlation between the levels of OPEs on cell phones and OPEs detected in women’s urine samples. Previous studies indicated that indoor air and dust contained a high level of OPEs.

The researchers also observed a correlation between the OPEs on women’s hands and in their urine samples, as well as in the dust found in their homes.

“Flame retardants are added to many products like electronic products, anything that heats up, anything with a plug,” said Diamond. OPEs are also used as plasticizers, which, along with flame retardants, can migrate out of an item over time. This means that OPEs can be found virtually anywhere.

The research suggests that touching different handheld devices — which are generally unclean — could transfer OPEs between them.

“If you lower [the concentration of OPEs] on your cell phone, presumably you lower what’s on your hands. You wash your hands; people seldom wash their cell phones. It’s a practical way to reduce your exposure.”

Diamond said that the next step is to investigate the toxicity of different OPEs that would affect human health. OPEs are already believed to act as endocrine disruptors.

Diamond explained that slight alterations in the thyroid of pregnant women, especially in the third trimester, could alter the brain of the fetus, which could lead to subtle neurobehavioral effects.

“A study was found showing the relationship between kids’ levels of some of these organophosphate esters and externalizing behaviour — as in kids that acted out, kids with more ADHD and a lot of activity, who don’t pick up the social cues quite as well.”

Not all OPEs behave the same. For example, one OPE that is often used in items like floor waxes is less toxic compared to other OPEs.

But Diamond explained that replacing high toxicity OPEs with low toxicity OPEs is difficult because “different chemicals which have different properties and compatibilities” are needed.

One way to reduce OPE exposure, other than cleaning your phone, is to reduce electronics use. Products in which OPEs are found are not labelled as such, but they are known to be in electronic products. And while this could be a difficult practice to adopt, Diamond explained that reducing electronic use has “good co-benefits.”

For instance, modern kitchens feature many electronic devices.

But having a kitchen filled with electronic devices is an “immediate way of how you can choose to live life with so-called convenience — but we pay a price for the convenience,” said Diamond.

While materials that contain flame retardants can be recycled and made into new products, there are consequences to that as well.

Diamond’s team is currently testing black plastic kitchen spoons that were found to contain bromine, a sign of flame retardants. This signal indicates that the material the spoons are made out of may have been previously used in computer casing or casing for other electronic devices.