Ever since the iconic yellow Livestrong wristbands were introduced as a fundraising item in 2004 —one of the trendiest fashion fads of the past decade — these little silicon bracelets have become ubiquitous with cause marketing. Today, they come in every color of the rainbow, representing hundreds or even thousands of causes. You can even custom-order your own.
But now, researchers have found that these little rings of plastic hold another important purpose. They can detect air pollutants and chemicals that the wearer is exposed to every day. How’s that for awareness?
Researchers from Oregon State University provided 30 volunteers with sanitized, slightly modified silicon bracelets and asked them to wear the accessories for 30 days. At the end of the period, the scientists tested the bracelets for more than 1,200 chemical compounds. The results were shocking. Not only were the wristbands able to detect several dozen pollutants — 49 to be exact — such as pesticides, flame-retardants and pet flea medications, but they also absorbed common compounds, such as caffeine and nicotine. Because silicon is a porous material, it acts similarly to human cells. Once the chemicals come in contact with the wristband — or at large, human cells — they are essentially locked in. “We were surprised at the breadth of chemicals,” Kim Anderson, professor, chemist, and senior author of the study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, told Environmental Health News. “There was definitely some caffeine on mine!”
Given the results of this initial study, these silicon bracelets may allow scientists to finally be able to quantify tens of thousands of chemicals and pollutants that humans are exposed to on a regular basis, a scientific experiment that has previously been impossible. “This study offers some real possibilities to address the weak link in epidemiological studies — which is the exposure science,” said Ted Schettler, science director at the Science and Environmental Health Network. “[These bracelets] can identify both chemicals and mixtures, and this could easily be applied to larger groups to see which compounds are showing up most commonly.”
To test this, the researchers asked eight roofers to wear the silicon bands for eight hours. At the end of the day, they tested the bracelets specifically for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — chemicals in roofing tar that are thought to cause severe health effects, such as cancer and reproductive problems, after years of exposure. Not surprisingly, all the roofers’ wristbands tested positive for PAHs, as well as 12 other compounds that are on a federal priority list of harmful pollutants. And this after just eight hours of wearing.
While you won’t be able to purchase your own chemical-monitoring bracelets quite yet (more research needs to be done on which pollutants show up and which don’t), the idea that a simple, not to mention cheap, silicon band can track the chemicals we’re exposed to is a major breakthrough for scientists who are working in potentially harmful environments.
Sounds like this fashion trend has a lot of life left in it, after all.