Chemical detection project: Pilot results

New technology illuminates the presence of chemicals in our everyday environment

Report published: October 2015

Tracking what chemicals a person came in contact with used to require bulky, expensive electronic monitors. But wearable technology is changing that.

In this pilot project, we used new wristband monitor technology from MyExposome Inc., developed at Oregon State University, to detect hidden chemical exposures in our everyday environment.

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What did we aim to learn?

We conducted this project to better understand the potential and limitations of the wristband technology and to inform larger, future projects aimed at detecting the chemicals in our environment.

What did the project do?

Twenty-eight people wore the wristbands for a week. The wristbands acted like sponges to detect chemicals found in the air, water and consumer goods, such as personal care products.

Analysis in a lab showed which of up to 1,400 chemicals were present in each participant's environment.

Who wore the wristbands?

EDF staff and board members, as well as outside experts in public health. The participants were mainly business professionals who wore the wristbands in a typical week of activity.

Many make some effort to limit their exposure by buying organic foods, avoiding synthetic fragrances and household pesticides, or purchasing flame retardant-free products.

Video: USA Today reporter Ed Baig learns about the chemicals the wristband found in his environment.

What did we find?

Even people who took steps to avoid chemicals still encountered hazardous chemicals in their everyday environment. The project detected a total of 57 chemicals.

Each participant came into contact with at least 10 and up to 27 chemicals, with the average participant's wristband detecting 15 chemicals.

Many of the chemicals the wristbands detected are associated with serious health concerns:

  • All 28 wristbands detected at least one persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemical (PBT), with a total of 16 different PBTs detected. PBTs are particularly concerning because they persist for generations and bioaccumulate in the body and in the food chain.
  • 26 of 28 wristbands detected at least one PAH chemical – air pollutants that are linked to cancer.
  • 24 of the 28 wristbands detected at least one flame retardant chemical, 13 of 28 wristbands detected 3 or more flame retardants, and three specifically detected the flame retardant TCEP, banned in the EU due to its reproductive health effects.
  • 23 of the 28 wristbands detected both DEHP and BBP– hazardous phthalate chemicals banned in products like toys, pacifiers and baby bottles.
  • 9 of 28 wristbands detected the pesticide permethrin, which has increasingly been linked to neurological effects like Parkinson's disease.

Other chemicals detected by the wristbands have barely been studied and their potential hazards are still unknown.

Why this information matters

There's still a lot we don't know about what hazardous chemicals everyday Americans are exposed to through their environments and consumer products.

What is clear, however, is that even the most careful shoppers cannot avoid exposure to hazardous chemicals simply by making good choices at the store.

Emerging technologies like these wristbands are helping to build a more robust body of information that can shed light on the best ways to reduce harmful exposures and protect health. That's why EDF is working to catalyze innovation, investment, and research using emerging tools like these wristbands.

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