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College Dorm Rooms Carry a Hidden Cancer Risk

The dust bunnies are more like dust monsters.
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Most college students aren't the biggest neat-freaks on the planet, which is why the results of new research are particularly unsettling. In the first study of its kind, researchers collected 95 dust samples from common areas and student rooms in dormitories on two New England college campuses that adhered to two different furniture flammability standards and found traces of 47 different flame retardants in the dust. Many of the flame retardants detected may be health hazards; some of these chemicals are known carcinogens, while others are recognized as hormone disruptors (linked with thyroid dysfunction and decreased fertility, in particular) or neurotoxins. In other words, what they found was either bad or terrible. They also reported that the dust level of flame retardants was "significantly higher" on the campus that followed a more severe flammability standard for furniture. "We know a whole lot more about the potential health risks associated with some of these chemicals than others," says Ted Schettler, science director of the Science & Environmental Health Network (who was not involved in this study), asserting that the presence of certain flame retardants in dust can correlate to a higher presence of the chemical in a person's blood level.


Because flame retardants are added to textiles, curtains, electronics, upholstered furniture, building insulation, and other materials, they can migrate out of these items and permeate the air and dust in a given space. They end up in our bodies when we breathe or touch the dust. "Across the country, people are widely exposed to these chemicals—and college students often bring things that contain them, such as foam furniture, into dorms," says study lead author Robin Dodson, an exposure scientist at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts. As a result, students are exposed to these toxic chemicals in the very place where they spend the most time sleeping, studying, and hanging out.

Among the most worrisome findings: 41 percent of dorm rooms they tested had levels of TDCIPP (a carcinogenic chemical that has also been linked with hormone disruption and harmful effects on the nervous system) that are above the level the US Environmental Protection Agency deems a health risk. (Because of health concerns, manufacturers voluntarily removed TDCIPP from children's pajamas in the 1970s but the chemical has continued to be used in other products.)

Meanwhile, levels of two flame retardants—BDE 209 and BDE 47—were nine and five times higher respectively in the dorm dust than the highest levels found in previous studies from the last decade. Concentrations of certain flame retardants (including the carcinogenic TCEP) were higher in students' rooms than in common areas, perhaps because dorm rooms are often more heavily furnished and—no shade, college students—cleaned less regularly.

Granted, few people are likely to argue with efforts to prevent fires or slow their spread in dorms. But it turns out that the use of flame retardants may not even be necessary, given the effectiveness of non-toxic alternatives such as sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, bans on smoking and use of candles, and smolder-resistant furniture. "Here we are dumping things that could cause cancer into furniture when maybe they don't even need to be there," Dodson says.

At this point, "we have to make up for decades of not regulating these chemicals—now we're essentially doing a post hoc experiment on everyone [to see what the health effects are]," says Tracey Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of the reproductive health and the environment program at the University of California, San Francisco. "You can have things that don't catch on fire without using all these chemicals." The results of this study highlight the need for better regulatory interventions for fire safety, she adds. "If these chemicals are in our dust," Woodruff says, "that means we need to get them out of our products and replace them with things that are not going to harm us."

Until that happens on a widespread basis, the onus is on college students and their families to take steps to minimize their exposure to these hazardous chemicals. For starters, it helps to buy furnishings (such as chairs, couches, and pillows) that are labeled as flame-retardant-free; choose pillows and bedding that are 100 percent polyester, cotton, or down; and avoid "egg crate"-style foam mattress pads. "Not only is it making the right choices as a consumer but it's a matter of taking steps to minimize the accumulation of dust," Dodson says. To that end, it's smart to make a concerted effort to keep dust levels as low as possible in dorm rooms—by using a damp cloth to wipe down surfaces regularly, by vacuuming frequently with a model that has a HEPA filter, and by avoiding the accumulation of stuff (like piles of books and papers) where dust can build up. Also, try to keep your computer, TV, and other electronic devices as dust-free as possible with wipes that are specially designed for electronics. For more strategies to minimize exposure to flame retardants and other potentially problematic chemicals—such as phthalates (substances added to plastics for flexibility) which could have a synergistic effect with flame retardants, Dodson says—it helps to use the free smartphone app Detox Me, developed by the silent Spring Institute. The app provides simple, evidence-based tips on how to reduce exposure to these chemicals in your permanent home—or your home away from home.

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