There are “forever chemicals” in the air we breathe. A recently published study found concerningly high levels of PFAS in indoor air. The airborne particles are believed to be shed from flooring, carpeting and other textiles treated with PFAS.
We already know that food and drinking water are two major sources of “forever chemicals”, man-made and highly persistent fluorinated compounds harmful to both human health and the environment.
According to a new study from the University of Rhode Island and the Green Science Policy Institute, the very air we breathe may be a third significant route for “forever chemicals” to enter our bodies. At least the air we breathe indoors, which is where many of us spend 90% of our time, according to the authors of the study.
“It’s an underestimated and potentially important source of exposure to PFAS”, said Tom Bruton, a co-author and senior scientist at Green Science, to The Guardian.
Kindergarteners may inhale more PFAS than they ingest
Using a new measurement technique, the study team found PFAS in the air of 17 out of the 20 tested indoor environments around California. The airborne particles are believed to have broken off from PFAS-treated products like carpets and clothes, attaching themselves to dust or floating freely through the room.
The indoor environments tested were the supply room of an outdoor clothing store, an elevator, offices, university classrooms and labs, and kindergarten premises.
Devastatingly enough, the team detected especially high levels of PFAS in the air of several kindergarten classrooms. The levels were so high that the study draws the conclusion that kindergarteners probably inhale more “forever chemicals” than they ingest through food and water.
“This reinforces that as long as there are PFAS in products that we have surrounding us in our homes and in our lives, there’s going to be some amount that ends up in the air, ends up in dust, and we are going to end up breathing it in”, Tom Bruton said to The Guardian.
Forever and everywhere – as well as toxic and persistent
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of close to 5,000 man-made chemicals used to make products water-, stain- or heat-resistant.
Since they are so effective, the substances are used across a variety of industries and thousands of products, such as stain guards, carpets, shoes, waterproof clothing, floor waxes, nonstick cookware, food packaging, cosmetics, firefighting foam and much more.
Sometimes called “forever chemicals”, since they don’t degrade naturally, PFAS are bioaccumulative and linked to a wide range of health problems, including cancer, infertility, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity and hormone disruption.
The single greatest challenge with PFAS is that they, with relatively few exceptions, are perfectly legal to use. Considering the current system of banning substances one at a time – even though the EU recently initiated the transition towards group bans – it’s going to be a while before all PFAS are phased out from production.
Two PFAS chemicals stand out in the test results
Since PFAS are so commonly used, it’s difficult to determine the origin of the airborne particles with certainty, although the study team did find the same compounds in certain products as in the air at some of the tested environments.
One of the PFAS most commonly found during testing was 6:2 FTOH, used in floor waxes, stain guards and food packaging. Scientists have linked 6:2 FTOH to kidney disease, cancer, neurological damage, developmental problems, mottled teeth and autoimmune disorders.
The team also found high levels of 8:2 FTOH, a chemical so dangerous that major PFAS manufacturers in the US claim to have phased it out of production. However, the test results suggest that this has not been done – or that the products shedding this particular PFAS have been made in countries where 8:2 FTOH is still being used.
“To me, this is yet another sign of just how important it is that we ban all PFAS as a group. Not just in Europe, not just in the US, but globally – and the entire class of PFAS”, says Dr. Jonatan Kleimark, Senior Chemicals and Business Advisor at ChemSec.
This is how we move away from PFAS
In the absence of a complete ban, several companies have made the decision to stop using PFAS. Shaw Floors has successfully phased out “forever chemicals” from their products. Kellie Ballew, Vice President of Global Sustainability at Shaw, describes how they did it:
”We worked for many years to successfully meet the marketplace demands for high performing and PFAS-free flooring products. We achieved success by first connecting with our customers and understanding the product features they needed in flooring products. We then looked for innovative, PFAS-free solutions from both existing and new suppliers that met or exceeded our customers’ performance expectations across our entire carpet portfolio.”
Here are some of the safer alternatives
There are plenty of safer and greener alternatives to PFAS. These are three of them, listed here on Marketplace along with several other substitutes.
Evo Protect D
DyStar’s product EVO Protect DWA offers fluorine-free water repellency, suitable for application on cotton, cellulosic fibres, and polyester and polyamide fibres.
NEOSEED from NICCA Chemical provides durable water repellency on all types of fabric, made with an environmentally friendly hydrophobic polymer.
Prevent Tec ifoam is an effective and highly concentrated gel foam extinguishing agent with very short extinguishing time, reducing water consumption to a minimum.