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How To Protect Gymnasts from Dangerous Chemicals at the Gym

How To Protect Gymnasts from Dangerous Chemicals at the Gym

Written by Dr. Lakshmi Venkataraman, MD
Article Reviewed by 
The Medindia Medical Review Team on March 26, 2019 at 5:36 PM
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  • Switching to flame retardant chemical-free foam cubes in landing pits can protect gymnasts from exposure to hazardous chemicals in flame retardants
  • Landing pits in the gym are filled with foam cubes that are treated with flame retardant chemicals and studies have found that levels of flame retardant chemicals in gymnasts are up to six times more than the general population
  • Flame retardant chemicals have been shown to be associated with health risks such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), infertility, weight gain, cancers and thyroid problems

Flame retardant chemicals found in foam cubes at the gym can pose serious health hazards to gymnasts at the gym, according to a recent study led by Carignan, an epidemiologist at Michigan State University who was herself a former gymnast, in collaboration with a gym at Massachusetts.

The foam cubes are used to fill the landing pits that gymnasts use while doing aerial exercises or practicing dismounts. The cubes are made out of polyurethane foam and treated with flame retardant chemicals as a fire safety measure.

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How To Protect Gymnasts from Dangerous Chemicals at the Gym

"Gymnasts are particularly at risk because so much of their training happens during childhood and adolescence when their bodies are developing and are vulnerable to chemical exposures," says lead author Courtney Carignan, an epidemiologist at Michigan State University and a former gymnast herself. "And competitive athletes and coaches may have higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than recreational gymnasts because they spend more time in the gym," she says.

The findings of the study appear in the journal Environment International.

Analyzing Risk of Chemical Exposure From Foam Cubes at the Gym

Courtney and her team decided to conduct an intervention study to analyze the effects of exposure to chemicals in foam cubes at the gym by partnering with a gym facility at Massachusetts where foam cubes treated with flame retardant chemicals were used at the start of the study and then replaced with flame retardant free alternatives during the course of the study.

Also, to ensure that switching from foam cubes to flame retardant chemical-free alternatives would not influence fire safety, an independent fire protection engineer was made to inspect the gym facility before the switch. Once it was determined the gym was safe since the building had smoke detectors, sprinklers and other safety measures in place, the local building and fire departments approved the switch to chemical-free cubes.

The funding for the study was provided by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
  • Before replacing the foam cubes, the team obtained hand wipe samples from 10 gymnasts prior to after a two-hour training session and analyzed the samples for more the levels of several different flame retardant chemicals.
  • After the gym switched from foam pit cubes to flame retardant free substitutes, the team repeated the experiment, obtaining another round hand wipe samples from the gymnasts and analyzing for levels of flame retardant chemicals again
  • The team observed a 5.4 fold reduction in the levels of flame retardant chemicals following the switch to chemical-free alternatives
  • Despite the switch to flame retardant chemical-free alternatives, detectable levels of these chemicals were present, suggesting other sources such as landing mats
The findings of the study suggest that replacing flame retardant containing foam cubes with chemical-free alternatives will reduce the risk of dangerous chemical exposure of gymnasts without compromising their safety.

The findings of the study can also have implications for other recreational facilities such as trampoline parks and climbing gyms that also have foam pits.

Robin Dodson, an environmental exposure scientist at Silent Spring Institute, and co-author not only do flame retardants pose a health risk, their use in products has shown to have little benefit in terms of improving fire safety. "Given the health risks, and the fact that these chemicals are not necessary, we should not be exposing young gymnasts to these harmful substances, especially when safer alternatives are available."

Scope of the Study

  • Carignan and her team have developed guidelines to help gyms make the switch, with information on how to purchase hazardous chemical-free gym equipment.
  • Additionally, the authors suggest that washing hands with soap and water can reduce exposure risk after practice and before eating
  • Also, since fire safety was ensured before switching to flame retardant free alternatives, gym facilities should feel more confident of changing to chemical-free alternatives to ensure the safety of gymnasts


Replacing flame retardant containing foam cubes with chemical-free alternatives at the gym will reduce the risk of dangerous chemical exposure of gymnasts without compromising safety.

Reference :
  1. Intervention to reduce gymnast exposure to flame retardants from pit foam: A case study - (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2019.01.084)

Source: Medindia

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