Equipping offices with “healthier” furnishings could reduce human exposure to risky PFAS chemicals, new research suggests.
To look at indoor PFAS levels, a team led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston, analyzed building dust in classrooms and common campus spaces.
“Our findings provide desperately needed scientific evidence for the success of healthier materials — which don’t have to be more expensive or perform less well — as a real-world solution to reduce indoor exposure to forever chemicals as a whole,” said Anna Young, lead author of the study. She’s a research associate in the department of environmental health and associate director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program.
PFAS — or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are called “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment. Used for stain and water resistance, at least 12,000 types of PFAS are found in products such as furniture, carpet, textiles, food packaging, nonstick cookware, cosmetics and firefighting foam.
Linked to thyroid disease, stunted development, weakened immune systems, high cholesterol, testicular cancer, obesity and diabetes, these chemicals have been detected in the blood of more than 98% of Americans.
For this study, the researchers wanted to expand on an earlier investigation that looked at 15 types of PFAS in buildings. It’s difficult because most of the thousands of PFAS chemicals are unknown or can’t be measured with traditional lab techniques.
They instead used a surrogate — organic fluorine — to measure PFAS. It is found in all PFAS.
The research team compared 12 indoor spaces with healthier carpet and furniture to 12 with conventional furnishings.
PFAS concentrations in dust were 66% lower in the 12 rooms with healthier materials. Organic fluorine levels were also lower in the healthier spaces, the investigators found.
While the 15 types of PFAS that researchers could measure in the lab were significantly correlated with organic fluorine levels, they only accounted for up to 9% of it. That suggests many unidentified PFAS are present in the dust, the study authors noted in a school news release.
The researchers emphasized the importance of eliminating unnecessary chemicals and making healthier furnishings and carpet. They said manufacturers should also provide chemical lists for these “healthier” materials that are verified by an outside source.
“This study addresses a key question: If we demand products without any forever chemicals, do we see a reduction in total PFAS beyond the usual 15 measured in a lab?” said senior author Joseph Allen, associate professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings program. “The answer is unequivocally, yes.”
The findings were published online Nov. 4 in Environmental Science & Technology.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has an explainer on PFAS chemicals.
SOURCE: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, news release, Nov. 7, 2022