Harmful ‘forever chemicals’ rampant within indoor air, study reveals

KINGSTON, R.I. — Most articles focusing on air pollution speak on outdoor smog. Unfortunately, a new and unsettling study reports the air we breathe in our homes, schools, offices, and local stores may contain excessive levels of harmful chemicals known as PFAS.

For reference, PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals in water, heat, and stain-resistant products for decades. PFAS are good at what they do, and thus utilized across countless industries. That includes foods packaged in PFAS-containing materials, exposed drinking water, clothes, paints, and carpeting just to name a few examples.

What makes PFAS so harmful is the fact that they don’t break down. So, whenever an animal or human comes into contact with one of these “forever chemicals,” it sticks with the body for the long haul. This can lead to the buildup of more and more PFAS over time. Scientists add that PFAS also have a link to a number of health conditions including cancer, liver disease, and birth defects.

Where are forever chemicals coming from indoors?

Study authors developed a new way to measure PFAS levels within indoor settings, and subsequent tests produced worrying results. The team detected PFAS in the air of homes, kindergarten classrooms, university offices, and laboratories. In some cases, indoor PFAS levels even exceeded measurements at an outdoor clothing company and carpet stores selling PFAS-treated products.

“Food and water are known to be major sources of PFAS exposure,” says senior study author Rainer Lohmann, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, in a release. “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.”

Researchers theorize that PFAS break away from household items and goods, going on to linger in the air where they may breathed in eventually.

No avoiding chemical exposure?

Study authors placed polyethylene sheet samplers on the ceilings of tested environments, which allowed them to assess PFAS levels. In all, nine carpeted kindergarten classrooms, one home, and the storage room of an outdoor clothing store were all tested in California, as well as two laboratories, five offices, one classroom, one storage room, one elevator at the University of Rhode Island, and two carpet stores, all located within Rhode Island. The findings reveal that PFAS were present in nearly all tested locations.

Notably, many tested kindergarten classrooms and university rooms actually showed higher PFAS levels than the storage room of an outdoor clothing store full of jackets and gear treated with PFAS. Overall, the highest PFAS concentrations appeared in the two carpet stores.

“PFAS were formerly used as stain and water repellents in most carpets,” adds lead study author Maya Morales-McDevitt. “Fortunately, major retailers including The Home Depot and Lowe’s now only sell PFAS-free carpets. We believe that slowly smaller retailers will do so as well.”

The first step to reducing PFAS levels indoors is to replace old carpeting. However, PFAS are still rampant in many other products such as shoes, clothes, and various indoor furnishings.

“As long as they continue to be used in products, we’ll all be eating, drinking, and breathing PFAS,” concludes study co-author Tom Bruton, 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.”

The findings appear in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

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