STOW, Mass. - For parents of kids who practice gymnastics, injuries aren’t necessarily the only hazard in the gym. Cancer-causing chemicals could be present in foam blocks at used by gyms, but efforts are underway to raise awareness and make the sport safer.

What You Need To Know

  • UMass Lowell's Toxics Use Reduction Institute is raising awareness about harmful chemicals found in some foam blocks used for gymnastics

  • Flame retardants infused in the foam blocks were intended to make the sport safe, but could be unknowingly inhaled or touched

  • The Institute works with local facilities like Donoma Gymnastics in Stow to replace old foam blocks

  • It is believed many gym owners may not be aware of this issue

Foam blocks provide athletes with a soft landing as they practice their moves, and they are often infused with flame retardants throughout the polyurethane foam they’re made of.

While this has lessened one risk, those same chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological issues and other health problems. Over time as the cubes break down, dust particles from them could be inhaled by young gymnasts or come into contact with their skin.

Liz Harriman, deputy director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at UMass Lowell, believes most gym owners are unaware their foam pits contain these harmful chemicals.

Through the Institute, some gym owners have been informed of this issue and taken steps to make their facility safer. At Donoma Gymnastics in Stow, Lindsey Kersten was able to replace her older foam cubes using grant funding.

“I think that we are at the beginning stages of people understanding that it is in their facility,” Kersten said. “When I go and see other gym owners, I tell them about the grant. I let them know that they should check and see if their manufacturer is using a flame retardant on their blocks.”

But in order to replace the old foam cubes, Massachusetts law required Kersten to seek approval from the town’s fire department.

Going forward, Harriman and the Toxics Use Reduction Institute would like to see Massachusetts and other states balance fire safety with avoiding the use of these chemicals.

“I think we need to move toward a holistic fire safety and health-safe environment,” Harriman said. “We don't want to put children at risk from fire if we're taking out chemicals that are hazardous to their health, but there is a way to make sure that your facility is fine. You don't always need to have the highest level of flame retardants in order to make a fire-safe building.”

For parents, some of whom grew up as gymnasts themselves, there is a sense of relief that more attention is being paid to this issue. They hope outreach continues so they won’t have to worry about their kids’ safety as they progress in their gymnastics training.

“It was kind of shocking, I mean, I didn’t realize that I and my children were jumping into things that were dangerous,” said Emmalee Kiernan. “I never really knew.”

“I hadn’t really thought about it in foam pits until Lindsey mentioned it to me, so I’m really glad they replaced the foam pit,” said Kim Canuette Grimaldi. “My five-year-old is physically disabled, and gymnastics was a good option for him when soccer really wasn't a possibility.”

Kersten had recently acquired Donoma Gymnastics, and was made aware of her foam blocks’ potential contamination by a concerned parent. The Toxic Use Reduction Institute contributed a $10,000 reimbursement grant to replace the blocks.