This is the question I’ve found myself asking during COVID-19. Because along with so many other things, my workout routine has changed since the start of quarantine began in March. With precautionary measures leading to gym closures, many of us are needing to work out at home to maintain our health and sanity.
To get fully set up, I had to acquire a few things to outfit our home gym, which got me thinking about whether or not the workout equipment is toxic. Is it possible the stuff I was using to exercise could actually hurt my health? If so, what are the safer options?
First, I noticed the Proposition 65 warnings on some dumbbells and kettlebells. That led me to wonder if gym floor mats have the same toxicants as some kids puzzle mats. What about yoga mats? The biggest question really is: In trying to stay healthy, are we putting other aspects of our health at risk with toxic chemical exposure in our workout equipment?
I’m sharing what I’ve learned with you here so that you can make healthier choices for your home workout routine.
Kettlebells and dumbbells
Some weights bear a Proposition 65 label, a label which states that a product contains one or more chemicals on the Proposition 65 list that have been linked to cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. Unfortunately, the label doesn’t tell you which of the 900 chemicals on that list a particular product contains, or what part of the product that chemical may be in.
But when it comes to kettlebells and dumbbells, companies may wrap these in PVC, a type of plastic that’s called vinyl. PVC is a hard type of plastic, but phthalates can be used to make it soft. Because phthalate chemicals are not tightly bound to the other molecules in the plastic, they often “migrate,” moving out of the plastic and finding their way into our bodies. Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals or ingredients. Endocrine disruptors are linked to reduced fertility, developmental disorders, reproductive malformations in baby boys, asthma, and increased allergic reactions. They’ve also been identified by Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks) as “a prime example of chemicals of emerging concern to brain development.” Six phthalates are on the Proposition 65 list.
Another thing to know about PVC is that in its production, PVC releases a number of harmful chemicals including dioxins, lead, cadmium, and vinyl chloride, all of which are on the Proposition 65 list. The manufacturing of PVC is not good for the environment and the use of it isn’t good for humans.
To stay safer in your weight lifting, look for kettlebells made from cast iron, chrome or steel, and avoid those with vinyl or PVC coatings.
Guess where else PVC shows up? Unfortunately, most standard yoga mats are made with it, since PVC lends a desired stickiness and also give with body weight. When they aren’t made from PVC, yoga mats are often made from rubber. However, rubber can be made from recycled materials and /or cut with numerous chemicals, (see more details below), so you want to be sure to purchase a yoga mat from 100% natural rubber.
Bottom line for yoga mats is that there are several alternative materials on the market. Look for nontoxic yoga mats that are made of cork, jute (a type of vegetable fiber), or organic cotton when possible.
Most floor pads are made from EVA foam, which is short for ethylene-vinyl acetate. It’s a common substitute for materials like natural rubber and neoprene. EVA off-gasses a chemical called formamide, which is what gives EVA foam mats their soft and squishy feel; but formamide has been linked to reproductive harm. The European Union has designated formamide as a substance of high concern and stipulated that foam mat products be limited to 200 mg/kg of the chemical.
Other floor pads might be made from rubber, which comes in three forms:
- recycled, usually from car or truck tires, which have been found to contain a range of potentially harmful chemicals;
- synthetic (made from chemicals and processing that includes phthalates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and PAHs
- or natural rubber (made from latex, which many people are allergic to).
If you’re not allergic to latex, opt for natural rubber floor pads. Otherwise, ditch the pads entirely and opt for a yoga mat made from natural materials instead.
Guess where else PVC shows up? Yep, exercise balls, which some companies claim is necessary for making the ball bouncy and resilient. There are some balls are made from thermoplastic rubber (TPR), which is a form of synthetic rubber. While some manufacturers claim TPR is safe because free of phthalates, BPA, and PVC, there don’t appear to be many studies on the material or its potential health impacts, here I would exercise the Precautionary Principle, which means to avoid this one until we know more about its potential impacts to health and the environment. If possible, opt for a silicone exercise ball instead.
Most of us have accelerated our wipes use during the pandemic, especially where we sweat. It’s worth being careful which wipes you choose because wipes are most often made on a plastic substrate which can shed microplastic fibers and contribute to plastic pollution. Antibacterial wipes can contain ammonium quaternary compounds (quats), which are lung and skin irritants, and emerging research shows they may have some reproductive impacts as well. Luckily, because they’re registered pesticides, they’re required to be listed on labels as active ingredients. Head over to Women’s Voices for the Earth for a list of quat chemicals to avoid on wipes labels. Using a reusable rag with a gentle cleanser is a better option for maintaining your home gym.