According to a recent study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, restored buildings with healthier furnishings showed significantly lower levels of the entire group of per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS), hazardous compounds associated to many adverse health effects.
The study was published 4 November 2022 in Environment Science & Technology by authors Anna S. Young, Heidi M. Pickard, Eslie M. Sunderland, and Joseph G. Allen.
PFASs are a group of complex man-made chemicals that are present in various everyday and household products, including non-stick cookware, stain and water repellents, furniture, carpets and textiles, and takeout containers.
The stubbornness of this chemical lies in its molecular design: a carbon-fluorine bond that is one of the hardest to degrade. This means it does not naturally degrade in the environment and it will stay around for a long time, often being referred to as a “forever” chemical. Exposure can result in negative health effects such as testicular cancer, weakened immune system, stunted development, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes.
After previous research on PFAS and dust in buildings on a university campus, Anna Young (lead author of the study) and her colleagues found that buildings with healthier materials showed lower levels of 15 types of PFAS. In the new study, they wanted to measure all types of PFAS because thousands of PFAS are unknown or cannot be measured using traditional lab techniques. They employed organic fluorine, a substance that is present in all PFAS, as a novel surrogate to quantify PFAS.
The researchers found that PFAS concentrations in dust were 66% lower in the 12 rooms with healthier materials compared to the 12 rooms furnished without particular attention to PFAS. They did this by comparing 12 indoor spaces with healthier carpet and furniture to another 12 spaces with conventional furnishings. The healthier environments also had reduced levels of organic fluorine, demonstrating that remodelling with healthier furnishings was successful in reducing not only the 15 PFAS previously tested but the entire class of persistent chemicals.
“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 Young.
The researchers emphasised the need for manufacturers to stop using entire classes of unnecessary harmful chemicals from furnishings, such PFAS, and to standardise on healthier materials for furniture and carpet. They also urge manufacturers to provide full disclosure of third-party-verified chemical ingredients for the “healthier” materials.
“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 Joseph Allen, senior author of the study and associate professor of exposure assessment science, director of the Healthy Buildings program. “The answer is unequivocally, yes.”
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