‘Forever chemicals’ linked to cancer common in indoor air, scientists warn

‘Forever chemicals’ linked to cancer common in indoor air, scientists warn
‘We need to stop all unnecessary uses of PFAS as soon as possible’, researchers say

Scientists are calling for an end to the use of so-called “forever chemicals” used in a broad array of manufacturing processes, after new research revealed the extent to which we are exposed to them just by breathing.

The term “forever chemicals” usually applies to a class of chemicals known as the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often known as PFAS.

These chemicals, of which there are around 6,000, are used in the manufacture of greaseproofing, stainproofing and waterproofing substances, and can be found in plastics, cookware, food packaging, clothing, cosmetics, medical devices, electronics and firefighting foams.

But since their introduction in the mid-20th century, a large body of evidence has built up revealing how exposure to PFAS can take a heavy toll on human health.

Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, liver and kidney problems, immune system impacts, cancers, low infant birth weights, and thyroid hormone disruption.

The new research, led by a team at the University of Rhode Island, reports that “the air we breathe in our homes, schools, and workplaces can be polluted with harmful PFAS chemicals”.

The study examined the level of PFAS chemicals in the air of kindergarten classrooms, university offices, laboratories, and the home, in the US.

They found the exposure to the chemicals could be as high in these places, as in outdoor clothing company stores, or carpet shops selling PFAS-treated products.

They said their results suggest indoor air is an underestimated and “potentially important” source of exposure to forever chemicals, particularly for children.

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

“Our study shows that indoor air, including dust, is another source of exposure to potentially harmful forever chemicals.”

He added: “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.”

The researchers assessed the level of exposure people may be having to these dangerous chemicals by attaching polyethylene sheet samplers to ceilings in nine carpeted kindergarten classrooms, one home, the storage room of an outdoor clothing store in California, and two carpet stores. And at the University of California, they used the same technique in two laboratories, five offices, one classroom, one storage room and one lift.

PFAS were detected in the air of nearly every location, they said.

Several kindergarten classrooms and rooms at the university had higher indoor air concentrations of PFAS than the storage room of the outdoor clothing store, which was full of jackets and gear treated with PFAS.

The highest concentrations were found in the two carpet stores.

“PFAS were formerly used as stain and water repellents in most carpets,” said the paper’s lead 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.”

While families, schools, and workplaces can reduce indoor air levels of PFAS by replacing carpets, there are still many other products that can emit volatile PFAS into indoor air, including clothing, shoes, building products, and furnishings.

“As long as they continue to be used in products, we’ll all be eating, drinking, and breathing PFAS,” said Tom Bruton, a 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.”

There are currently efforts to ban “non essential” uses of PFAS in the EU, with member states Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden all urging stricter regulation.

Meanwhile in the UK, the government has been described as “flying blind” on the use of forever chemicals, with the Environment Agency admitting this year that though PFAS are “ubiquitous” in the environment, it is not testing drinking water.

The research is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

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