More than 1,000 chemicals in the environment could be detected with a silicone wristband, giving wearers information about the chemicals they're exposed to in their everyday lives, researchers say.
The wristbands are made out of the same material as popular charity bands (such as LiveStrong), but the material has been modified to absorb chemicals from the air and water around a person, as well as their skin.
In a study of 30 volunteers who wore the bands for a month, the bands picked up nearly 50 different chemical compounds. The most commonly detected compounds were diethyl phthalate and tonalide, which are found in fragrances and other personal care products or cosmetics, the researchers said.
Other compounds that were detected included flame-retardants, pesticides, caffeine, nicotine and chemicals from pet flea medicines. [12 Worst Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals & Their Health Effects]
When the bands were worn by roof construction workers, they detected polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a group of chemicals that can be produced from the incomplete burning of coal, oil or wood. Twelve of the detected PAH compounds are on the Environmental Protection Agency's priority list of chemicals that are routinely monitored because of health concerns.
The researchers hope that one day, the bands could be used in studies to help link chemicals in the environment to health effects, said study researcher Kim Anderson, a professor at Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences.
"It's important to understand how the environment affects people, and the first part of that is understanding what our exposures are," Anderson told Live Science.
Although studies of the health effects of environmental chemicals have traditionally focused on just a few chemicals at a time, the bands allow people to "look at this really wide breadth of chemicals," to provide a more complete picture of a person's exposure, Anderson said.
To see what chemicals a user has been exposed to, he or she needs to send their band to Oregon State University for testing. Researchers there extract chemicals that have been absorbed by the bands by using a mix of solvents. The lab can screen for 1,200 chemicals.
However, the bands currently cannot detect some chemicals known to have effects on people's health, such as carbon monoxide, lead and chromium.
The bands can be calibrated to be worn for a specific amount of time, such as a day, week or month, and the lab analysis then shows how much of a chemical a person is exposed to over that time, Anderson said.
"They really are a measure of your environment, whatever you happen to be doing while you're wearing the wristband," Anderson said. The bands do not change color when they absorb chemicals, she said.
Many of the chemicals the researchers observed have no known toxic effects, although not much is known about a lot of these chemicals in general, Anderson said. Even when a person is exposed to a known carcinogen, the chemical may not be toxic at low levels, so determining the amount of exposure is important, Anderson said.
The bands are currently not available to the public, but the researchers are recruiting people to participate in studies of the bands. Anderson said they hope to license the technology or start their own company to sell the bands. (Lab testing of the bands would also require a fee.)
A group of pregnant women in New York City are currently wearing the bands as part of a study looking at how chemical exposures in pregnancy may affect children after birth. The bands are also being used to study pesticide exposure in West Africa, the researchers said.
Once people are aware of the chemicals they are exposed to, they can see if a change in their behavior lowers their exposure, Anderson said.
Anderson said she was not aware of any other wristbands that sample chemicals from the environment.