A New Use for Your Old Livestrong Bracelet: Monitoring Pollutants

Mar 04, 2014 at 2:23 PM ET

It took ten years, but someone finally found a way to make silicone charity bracelets do something positive for humanity. First launched in May 2004, wristbands like Livestrong bracelets became the way for fundraisers to extract pocket change from punters who wear their heart on their sleeve. The bands were pioneered by the Livestrong Foundation, the charity started by infamous cyclist and expert doper Lance Amstrong, and quickly became ubiquitous, to the point where all meaning was lost. But are they actually capable of doing some good?

Maybe. Researchers from the Oregon State University have discovered that traditional silicone bracelets, like Livestrong bands, can be used to track chemical compounds in the environment–the ones we inhale every day but don’t know about, and which may very well be doing us harm.

In a recent study, described in paper “Silicone Wristbands as Personal Passive Samplers,” the Oregon State professors analyzed the rubber bracelets as personal chemical monitoring devices. The team measured the bands’ effectiveness by asking two sets of people to wear them in two different settings: average people going about their daily lives, and roofers working with hot asphalt.

The researchers found that the silicone, which usually “acts as a sponge” according to website Chemical and Engineering News, absorbed approximately 76 different chemical compounds across both settings, including contaminants such as pesticides, flame retardants and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pollutants found in oil, coal and tar.

Their discovery, published in paper Environmental Science and Technology, is a neat one, especially given the relative uselessness of most silicone bands. While bracelets like the Livestrong are still bizarrely popular (The Livestrong foundation sold some 80 million bracelets as of January 2013) and also very cheap (100 rubber bracelets on gift site Oriental Trading costs only $21), they are normally discarded after a few months of wear or after the event for which they were designed comes to an end.

Kim Anderson, the head researcher behind the study, says that the bracelets could perform a number of humanitarian functions besides raking in money for a charity. The bands could be used in “disadvantaged communities,” where she says “environmental exposures may be high or our poorly understood,” or by pregnant women, who could wear them to monitor their exposure to pollutants over the course of a trimester.

Of course, these applications might be a long way off; simply wearing an old silicone bracelet in the hopes of absorbing nearby chemicals won’t do you any good. Analyzing and identifying the pollutants in wearers’ bracelets requires access to a lab, and researchers would need to find a way to expedite this process if wearing the bands as monitors was to have mass appeal.

As of now, most personal passive samplers come in the form of “badges,” or clips that one attaches to a bag or backpack. The badges collect chemicals in so-called “solvent chambers.”

Anderson believes the bands could change the way we keep tabs on the chemicals in our surroundings: “Accurately determining a person’s exposures to environmental chemicals is central to the challenge of evaluating potential health effects from our environment,” she says. Whether Livestrong bracelets do more to alleviate the global cancer burden by funneling cash to a foundation, or by understanding airborne carcinogens, remains to be seen.