Woman looking at smartphone


TORONTO — Amid all the worry about the spread of viruses, a new study says there’s another dangerous substance you should want to keep off your hands. Researchers from the University of Toronto say toxic chemicals, which are commonly used as flame retardants, can move from your television to the air and dust in your home. From there, those particles can end up on a person’s hands and be spread further by touching other devices like a cell phone.

Halogenated flame retardants have been added to television cases since the 1970s. Researchers say these chemicals were added to older TVs because of the fire risk these devices had. Back in the ’70s, a cathode ray tube would have to be warmed so the TV could project the images on its screen. This process ended up setting hundreds of TVs on fire, prompting companies to add flame retardants to the mix.

Even when televisions evolved into the sleek, modern, and safer products we see today, the study says companies have continued to cover them in potentially harmful flame retardants. Researchers warn these chemicals are not bonded to the TV case and eventually break free into the environment around them.

“It’s well-known that viruses are transferred between surfaces and hands,” says Professor Miriam Diamond in a statement. “Our study shows that toxic chemicals like flame retardants do the same. That’s another reason we should all wash our hands often and well.”

Flame retardants especially harmful to children

Researchers say halogenated flame retardants are made of chemicals like polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Those chemicals have been found to be toxic to people, but especially dangerous to children. The report notes that previous studies have found that exposure to these chemicals can lower IQ and cause behavioral problems in kids.

The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, finds high levels of flame retardants on cellphones and other hand-held devices. Fewer particles were found on the surfaces of desktop computers. Researchers believe these old particles are getting onto new mobile devices through constant touching by contaminated hands. They say that’s something less likely to happen with the monitor of a home computer.

“If a flame retardant is used in the TVs, we then find it throughout the house, including on the hands of the resident,” adds Lisa Melymuk of Masaryk University.

Researchers say the electronics industry should begin phasing out these possibly hazardous chemicals, calling their use in modern technology “unnecessary.” Until that day comes the study urges the public to keep washing their hands regularly. That’s not just to avoid COVID-19 outside of your home, but to avoid contaminants indoors too.

“Fire safety can be achieved by innovative product design and materials instead of the use of toxic chemicals that can remain in our homes — and in us — for years to come,” says Arlene Blum of the Green Science Policy Institute.

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About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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