Boston, MA – Renovated buildings with healthier furnishings had significantly lower levels of the entire per- and polyfluoroalkyl group of substances (PFAS), toxic chemicals linked to many negative health effects, than buildings with conventional furnishings, according to a new Harvard-led study. TH Chan School of Public Health.
the to study was published online November 4, 2022 in Environmental Science & Technology.
“We have decades of research showing that PFAS are of concern for human health and the environment. Our findings provide desperately needed scientific evidence for the success of healthier materials, which don’t have to be more expensive or perform worse, as a real-world solution to reduce indoor exposure to chemicals forever in your home. whole,” said Anna Young, a research associate in the Department of Environmental Health, associate director of the Healthy Buildings program and lead author of the study.
PFAS, termed “forever chemicals” due to their extreme persistence in the environment due to their characteristic carbon and fluorine backbone, are man-made compounds widely used for their stain and water resistant properties. There are at least 12,000 different types of PFAS and they are found in products such as furniture, carpets, textiles, food packaging, nonstick cookware, cosmetics, firefighting gear, and firefighting foam. PFAS have been detected in the blood of more than 98% of Americans. Health problems related to PFAS exposure include thyroid disease, developmental delay, weakened immune system, high cholesterol, testicular cancer, obesity, and diabetes. However, there is very little published research on the effectiveness of processable solutions in reducing indoor exposure to forever chemicals.
To assess levels of PFAS indoors, Young and colleagues analyzed dust in buildings on a university campus. In previous research, they found that levels of 15 types of PFAS were lower in buildings with healthier materials. But in the new study, they wanted a way to measure all types of PFAS, because the vast majority of the thousands of PFAS in use are unknown or cannot be measured with traditional laboratory techniques. As a novel surrogate to measure PFAS, they used organic fluorine, which is found in all PFAS.
Comparing 12 indoor spaces with healthier carpeting and furniture to 12 other spaces with conventional furniture, 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 paying special attention to PFAS. Organic fluoride levels were also lower in the healthier spaces, showing that renovating spaces with healthier furnishings succeeded in not only reducing the 15 traditionally researched PFASs, but the entire class of chemicals for good.
The 15 types of PFAS that the researchers were able to measure in the laboratory correlated significantly with organic fluorine concentrations, but only accounted for up to 9%, suggesting the likely presence of many unidentified PFAS in the dust.
The researchers stressed that it is important for manufacturers to remove entire groups of unnecessary toxic chemicals, such as PFAS, from furniture, and make furniture and carpets healthier as a norm. Manufacturers must also provide third-party-verified chemical ingredient lists for these “healthier” materials, the authors said.
“This study addresses a key question: If we mandate chemical-free products forever, do we see a reduction in total PFAS beyond the usual 15 measured in a lab?” said Joseph Allen, associate professor of exposure assessment sciences, director of the Healthy Buildings program and lead author of the study. “The answer is unequivocally, yes.”
Other co-authors of the Harvard study included Heidi Pickard and Elsie Sunderland.
The research was supported by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) grant T32 ES007069, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) grant T42 OH008416, National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant P30ES000002 and the Harvard Campus Sustainability Innovation Fund.
“Organic fluorine as an indicator of per- and polyfluoroalkul substances in building dust with healthier than conventional materials”, Anna S. Young, Heidi M. Pickard, Elsie M. Sunderland, Joseph G. Allen, Environmental Science & Technology, online November 4, 2022, doi: 10.1021/acs.est.2c05198