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Open Access Research

Exposure to flame retardant chemicals on commercial airplanes

Joseph G Allen1*, Heather M Stapleton2, Jose Vallarino1, Eileen McNeely1, Michael D McClean3, Stuart J Harrad4, Cassandra B Rauert4 and John D Spengler1

Author Affiliations

1 Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA

2 Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment, Durham, NC, USA

3 Boston University School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA

4 University of Birmingham, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Birmingham, UK

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Environmental Health 2013, 12:17  doi:10.1186/1476-069X-12-17

Published: 16 February 2013

Abstract

Background

Flame retardant chemicals are used in materials on airplanes to slow the propagation of fire. These chemicals migrate from their source products and can be found in the dust of airplanes, creating the potential for exposure.

Methods

To characterize exposure to flame retardant chemicals in airplane dust, we collected dust samples from locations inside 19 commercial airplanes parked overnight at airport gates. In addition, hand-wipe samples were also collected from 9 flight attendants and 1 passenger who had just taken a cross-country (USA) flight. The samples were analyzed for a suite of flame retardant chemicals. To identify the possible sources for the brominated flame retardants, we used a portable XRF analyzer to quantify bromine concentrations in materials inside the airplanes.

Results

A wide range of flame retardant compounds were detected in 100% of the dust samples collected from airplanes, including BDEs 47, 99, 153, 183 and 209, tris(1,3-dichloro-isopropyl)phosphate (TDCPP), hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) and bis-(2-ethylhexyl)-tetrabromo-phthalate (TBPH). Airplane dust contained elevated concentrations of BDE 209 (GM: 500 ug/g; range: 2,600 ug/g) relative to other indoor environments, such as residential and commercial buildings, and the hands of participants after a cross-country flight contained elevated BDE 209 concentrations relative to the general population. TDCPP, a known carcinogen that was removed from use in children’s pajamas in the 1970’s although still used today in other consumer products, was detected on 100% of airplanes in concentrations similar to those found in residential and commercial locations.

Conclusion

This study adds to the limited body of knowledge regarding exposure to flame retardants on commercial aircraft, an environment long hypothesized to be at risk for maximum exposures due to strict flame retardant standards for aircraft materials. Our findings indicate that flame retardants are widely used in many airplane components and all airplane types, as expected. Most flame retardants, including TDCPP, were detected in 100% of dust samples collected from the airplanes. The concentrations of BDE 209 were elevated by orders of magnitude relative to residential and office environments.

Keywords:
Flame retardants; Airplanes; Dust exposure; Hand-wipe samples