2014-03-11

Co.Exist

Livestrong Wristbands Are Good For Something Else: Measuring Our Exposure To Pollution

The latest innovation in devices to track our health couldn't be more low-tech. Those ubiquitous silicone bracelets are actually soaking up chemicals in the air all around us.

Lots of people sport brightly colored silicone bracelets to support cancer research and other causes. But those Livestrong bracelets may be much more capable than just a statement, according to a new study. In fact, they could be soaking up the various carcinogens we’re exposed to throughout the day.

Cheap, plentiful silicone, the stuff that most of those sporty “rubber” bracelets are made from, absorbs toxins at about the same rate as human cells. Researchers from Oregon State University sought out 30 volunteers to wear sanitized bracelets on their wrists for 30 days. At the end of the month, the scientists then tested those bracelets for 1,200 chemicals.

They found 49, far more than expected. “We were surprised at the breadth of chemicals,” study co-author Kim Anderson told Environmental Health News. Not only did the bracelets absorb caffeine and nicotine, but they also reflected a range of cosmetic and fragrance chemicals, pet flea medications, and flame retardants.

Using silicone bracelets could make it easier and more accurate for scientists to test how air quality affects our health. For years, scientists have relied on “personal passive samplers," often asking test subjects to carry bulky equipment around in backpacks. But those backpacks are still separated from the body. The Oregon State University researchers wanted to see what would happen if volunteers could record pollution on their wrists.

In addition to testing average people, the study authors also asked workers who are exposed to chemicals to participate. Eight roofing workers who volunteered to wear the bracelets for just eight hours had analyses that came back with 12 pollutants on the EPA’s harmful priority list. All were also exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are known carcinogens.

The researchers, reporting their results in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, say that silicone bracelets could prove a helpful new tool in analyzing the environmental harms around us. The wristbands are also significantly less fussy than the pollution monitoring equipment of yore—which could encourage citizen scientists to wear them.

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