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According to a new study led by the Harvard T.
Chen School of Public Health, buildings renovated with healthier furniture had significantly lower levels of the whole group of perfluorinated alkyl substances and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a toxic chemical
associated with many negative health effects, compared to buildings that used traditional furniture.
The study was published online in Environmental Science and Technology on November 4, 2022
"Our decades of research have shown that PFAS have an impact
on both human health and the environment.
Our findings provide much-needed scientific evidence for the success of health materials – which don't have to be more expensive or inferior in performance – as a realistic solution to reducing indoor exposure to permanent chemicals," said
Anna Young, a research associate in the Department of Environmental Health, associate director of the Healthy Buildings Project and lead author of the study.
PFAS is a man-made compound that is widely used because of its stain and water resistance, and is known as a "permanent chemical"
because it has a fluoro-carbon backbone and is extremely persistent in the environment.
There are at least 12,000 different types of PFAS found in
products such as furniture, carpets, textiles, food packaging, nonstick pans, cosmetics, firefighting equipment and firefighting foam.
More than 98 percent of Americans have PFAS
detected in their blood.
Health problems associated with exposure to PFAS include thyroid disease, stunted growth, weakened immune system, high cholesterol, testicular cancer, obesity, and diabetes
However, there are few
published studies on the effectiveness of viable solutions to reduce indoor exposure to permanent chemicals.
To assess indoor PFAS levels, Young and her colleagues analyzed dust
from buildings on a university campus.
In previous studies, they found lower
levels of 15 PFAS in buildings that used healthier materials.
But in this new study, they hope to find a way to measure all types of PFAS, because of the thousands of PFAS used, the vast majority are unknown or cannot be measured
with traditional laboratory techniques.
They used organofluorine as a new alternative to measure PFAS, which was found
in all PFAS.
Comparing 12 indoor spaces that used healthier carpets and furniture with another 12 that used traditional furniture, the researchers found that 12 rooms that used healthier materials had 66 percent
lower levels of PFAS dust compared to 12 rooms that did not pay particular attention to PFAS.
Organic fluoride levels were also lower in healthier spaces, suggesting that renovating spaces with healthier furniture not only succeeded in reducing the 15 PFAS traditionally studied, but also the permanent chemicals
for an entire category.
The 15 PFAS measured in the lab by the researchers were significantly associated with organofluorine concentrations, but only 9 percent of them, suggesting that there may be many unconfirmed PFAS
in the dust.
The researchers stress that it is important that manufacturers remove all unnecessary toxic chemicals, such as PFAS, from furniture and make healthier furniture and carpet materials the standard
Manufacturers should also provide a fully public, third-party certified list of chemical ingredients for these "healthier" materials
, the authors say.
"This study addresses a key question: If we ask that the product does not contain any permanent chemicals, will we see a reduction in total PFAS that exceeds the 15 typically measured in the lab?" Joseph Allen, associate professor of exposure assessment science, director of the Healthy Buildings Program and senior author of the study, said
"The answer is undoubtedly yes
Other Harvard co-authors of the study include 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 Harvard University Campus Sustainability Innovation Fund.