“Forever chemicals”, so-called because they are extremely resilient, are a group of potentially toxic, manufactured compounds used in all sorts of everyday products. Because of their persistent nature, they’re often found where they’re not wanted – notably in breast milk, the Arctic Ocean, and even our pets poop – and a new study has reportedly found them lurking in the air of homes, schools, and workplaces.
Perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS), as they are otherwise known, can be found in indoor air, carpets, and dust, according to the study published today in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. This is particularly pertinent given that average Americans spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors. While food and water are already recognized as major exposure sources to PFAS, this new research suggests that indoor air has been underestimated thus far and could be another important source of exposure, especially for children.
“Our study shows that indoor air, including dust, is another source of exposure to potentially harmful forever chemicals. In fact, for children in homes or schools with old PFAS-treated carpets, inhalation may be even more important than dust as an exposure pathway to volatile PFAS that eventually could biotransform to more persistent and harmful PFAS,” Rainer Lohmann, senior author of the study and professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, said in a statement.
The team developed a new measurement technique, where polyethylene sheets were fixed to the ceilings of various rooms across America. These included nine carpeted kindergarten classrooms, one home, and the storage room of an outdoor clothing store in California. Several spaces at the University of Rhode Island were also measured – two laboratories, five offices, one classroom, one storage room, and one elevator – and two carpet stores, also in Rhode Island. PFAS were detected in the air at almost all locations.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest concentrations of PFAS were found in the two carpet stores – “PFAS were formerly used as stain and water repellents in most carpets," according to lead author Maya Morales-McDevitt. However, the study’s more unexpected finding is that some of the kindergarten classrooms and University rooms had higher air concentrations of PFAS than the storage room of the outdoor clothing store, where various items treated with PFAS were stored.
The team also compared PFAS levels in the air, carpets, and dust and found them to be comparable, suggesting that carpets and dust are the culprits for PFAS in the air. Replacing carpets in homes, schools, and workplaces is, therefore, a good way to reduce indoor air PFAS levels.
As for their effect on our health, there are still many questions to be answered. However, PFAS have previously been linked to reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological issues, as well as the formation of tumors. All the more reason to replace those carpets.
Unfortunately, there are still a vast number of products – clothing, shoes, building products, and furnishings, for example – in indoor environments that can leak PFAS into the air.
“As long as they continue to be used in products, we’ll all be eating, drinking, and breathing PFAS,” said Tom Bruton, co-author and senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute.
“We need to turn off the tap and stop all unnecessary uses of PFAS as soon as possible.”