There are a few well known health hazards in the workplace: thereâ€™s the box of sweets in the kitchenette, the overzealous automatic door closer that threatens to break your ankle each time you enter, and the office bore who will spend half an hour blathering to you about what their Pekinese did last night until you want to pull your own head off. Now you can add to this panoply of problems the dust that is in even the best cleaned of offices. That is because new research has shown that this dust can be harbouring some seriously harmful stuff.
The â€œstuffâ€ in question is polybrominated diphenyl ether (PDBE). PBDEs are flame retardants that were once widely used in computers and other electrical as well as in the polyurethane padding frequently used in office furniture, chairs, and carpeting. The problem with PBDEs is that in recent times a type called penta-PBDE has been linked to changes in thyroid hormone levels, impaired fertility in women, lowered testosterone levels in men, and developmental deficits in children.
As a result, in 2004 manufacturers in the United States stopped production of penta-PBDE and also octa-PBDE. The European Union has also banned use of these formulations and manufacturers of deca-PBDE have agreed to cease production by the end of 2013. Thatâ€™s all well and good but the problem is that the sort of products that use PDBEs usually have a slow turnover. Add this to the long half life of PDBEs, meaning that they take ages to break down, and people will continue to be exposed for many years.
That is where this new piece of research has come in. The researchers wanted to see how much exposure to PBDEs was experienced by office workers since offices are prime sites for PBDE products.
To this end they investigated 31 separate offices in the city of Boston in the United States. As well as testing the offices they tested the workers to see what sort of levels of PBDE they had in their bodies.
Every office showed PBDEs present in the office dust, even offices in a new building with brand new office furniture. So all workers were exposed but workers who washed their hands four or more times per day, when compared to workers who washed their hands less often, had lower levels of penta-PBDEs on their hands and three times lower concentrations of penta-PBDEs in their blood.
There was a wide variation in levels of PBDEs across the offices but the handwashing link remained. So there you have another reason, aside from avoiding the flu, to soap, scrub, and rinse.