Silicone Wristbands Help Measure Children’s Exposure to Harmful Chemicals

Globally, scores of kids do not reach their developmental potential and this can be partly attributed to higher rates of exposure to legacy and present-day pollutants.

Researchers from the University at Buffalo and the Catholic University of Uruguay used silicone wristbands to examine the extent of chemical exposure among a small group of children in Montevideo, Uruguay. Image Credit: University at Buffalo.

Scientists working on chemical exposures among the Uruguayan children turned to an unbelievable data collection device. This was done as part of the latest study titled, silicone wristbands.

Such wristbands—the kind worn by many individuals across the world to demonstrate their support for an organization or cause—are highly effective at trapping specific kinds of dangerous chemicals, and they can be easily worn by children as well.

The wristbands were used by scientists from the University at Buffalo and the Catholic University of Uruguay to analyze the level of chemical exposure among a small set of children based in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Children aged between 6 and 8 years wore the bands for a week. The researchers subsequently examined the wristbands and found that each of the collected wristbands contained an average of 13 pollutants.

A few of the wristbands demonstrated DDT exposure; DDT is a dangerous pesticide that has been forbidden for use in a majority of the nations, including the United States since the 1970s.

This is the first-ever study using silicone wristbands to quantify children’s exposure to harmful chemicals in a nation outside the United States.

The study, which was recently published in the Science of the Total Environment journal, was partly performed as an ongoing study project in Montevideo under the guidance of Katarzyna “Kasia” Kordas, PhD, the senior author of the study.

Kordas is also an associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health in the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo and co-director of Community for Global Health Equity in the same university.

The study was financially supported by the UB RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water) Institute.

One of the key findings from this research is that we still observe industrial and agricultural chemicals that have been banned from production for years and even decades. We were also able to find specific differences between chemical exposures of the children in our study compared to children in the U.S., and identify potential reasons for differences in exposure.

Steven C. Travis, Study First Author and PhD Student, Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences, University at Buffalo

Diana Aga, Travis’ major PhD adviser, is Henry Woodburn Professor of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Buffalo and is also the co-author of the study.

Recently, silicone wristbands have turned out to be a popular approach to quantify personal exposures to organic chemicals, since they offer a non-invasive sampling technique and can also be worn easily.

In addition, silicone wristbands have more capacity to accommodate semi-volatile chemicals and are capable of trapping chemicals for an extended period of time. Silicone wristbands have made it possible to sample over 1500 chemicals, added Travis.

In this study, the scientists examined wristbands for a total of 45 chemicals collected from five groups—novel halogenated flame-retardant chemicals (NHFRs), organophosphorus flame retardants (OPFRs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and pesticides.

Among these, NHFRs were the only chemical group that was not identified. Each of the 23 collected wristbands contained anywhere between 8 and 19 chemicals.

The use of wristbands as a personal sampling device is an excellent alternative for assessing what harmful chemicals are accumulating in children’s bodies, rather than the old-fashioned way of collecting blood and measuring the chemical concentrations in the blood,” stated Aga.

The researchers detected PCBs in 19 of the 23 wristbands. They noted that until 2007, the trade and entry of PCBs were not controlled in Uruguay and that an estimated 40,000 transformers—a primary source of PCBs—were working in the nation in 2006.

The existence of PBDEs was established in 22 out of 23 wristbands. However, the levels of this chemical group were relatively lower when compared to those detected in U.S. studies. But according to the team, that was rather unexpected.

With this study, we’ve been able to link different exposures to certain lifestyle characteristics. For example, we are able to suggest that not having carpets in the home may lead to lower exposure to brominated flame retardants, which were used widely in the production of carpet padding. Also, with the use of other studies, we can uncover differences in exposure based on various modes of transportation.

Steven C. Travis, Study First Author and PhD Student, Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences, University at Buffalo

A total of 11 wristbands were found to contain all the six analyzed OPFRs. There were also pesticides, such as DDT, which was detected in as many as 20 wristbands.

It is very concerning that young children are exposed to multiple chemicals, including those that have been banned in the U.S. because of demonstrated harms to health,” stated Kordas. “We know that when chemicals occur together in so-called mixtures, they could be more detrimental to children’s development than each chemical alone.”

This emphasizes that we need to be more careful with the chemicals that we use for industrial and agricultural purposes, since they have the potential to remain in the environment and can affect people over decades.

Steven C. Travis, Study First Author and PhD Student, Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences, University at Buffalo

The co-authors of the study include Elena I. Queirolo and Monica Daleiro from the Center for Research at Catholic University of Uruguay, and James R. Olson, PhD, the University at Buffalo’s Distinguished Professor in the School of Public Health and Health Professions and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Journal Reference:

Travis, S. C., et al. (2020) Catching flame retardants and pesticides in silicone wristbands: Evidence of exposure to current and legacy pollutants in Uruguayan children. Science of the Total Environment.


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