Our Homes and Offices Are Full of 'Forever Chemicals'

A new study finds that building materials are full of unnecessary PFAS.

Metal roofing stays shiny because of PFAS

Visoot Uthairam/ Getty Images

The Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI) just released a report about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in building materials. Titled "Building A Better World: Eliminating Unnecessary PFAS in Building Materials," the authors make the case that we should "eliminate unnecessary uses of PFAS and to promote the design and use of safer non-PFAS alternatives."

Treehugger's Mary Jo DiLonardo previously explained why we can't run from "forever chemicals":

"Chemicals called perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used for decades to make products more stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick. They're used in cookware to keep food from clinging to pots and pans. They're incorporated into clothing to repel stains and water, used in foams to fight wildfires, and used in furniture and carpeting as protection from stains. PFAS are even used in fast food and other packaging to keep food from sticking." These "forever chemicals" — so called because they persist in our bodies and the environment for years — are seemingly everywhere.

Everywhere indeed: According to the GSPI study, "forever chemicals" are a major component in the building materials all around us, in roofing materials, paints and coatings, sealants, caulks, adhesives, fabrics, and more, in waterproofing, corrosion prevention, and of course, resistance to stains and water.

“Adding PFAS to building materials leads to pollution that will last decades, even centuries,” said David Johnson, AIA, a principal at SERA Architects who reviewed the report, said in a statement. “Avoiding PFAS is a high-impact change the building industry can make now for healthier buildings and a healthier world.”

Architects, designers, and many consumers have known about PFAS in carpets and fabrics, and many companies have eliminated them from carpets and upholstery, the kinds of products that users are in regular contact with. But many are buried and hidden.

As an architect, I am much less concerned about a coating that makes electric wiring slippery and easier to get through conduits than I would be about Glide or other coated dental flosses that are in my mouth. But evidently, these products can seep out. According to the authors of the GSPI report:

"PFAS can make their way into our water, air, food, and indoor dust during the manufacturing, use, and disposal of these materials. Building construction and maintenance workers or do-it-yourselfers may be particularly at risk. For example, tile and grout spray-on waterproofing products containing PFAS have been implicated in several cases of acute lung damage."
Roof of Vancouver Convention Centre
Roof of Vancouver Convention Centre. Lloyd Alter

PFAS are a key component of fancy waterproof membranes like you see in tensile roofs, but they are also in the finishes of mundane metal roofs and gutters to repel dirt and resist staining. They are in sealers and the coatings of wood floors. They are used wherever manufacturers want to make things stay cleaner longer. And it's not just during manufacture, but also maintenance.

The GSPI report states:

"A more widespread use of PFAS related to resilient and hard flooring is in after-market floor protectors, finishes, waxes, and polishes. By the early 1990s, fluorosurfactants had reportedly 'been universally adopted in both household and institutional floor polish systems.'"
Granite Counter may be sealed with PFAS
Granite Counter may be sealed with PFAS. Grace Cary/ Getty Images

Got a granite or marble counter that you are sealing? You've got PFAS, says the GSPI report:

"Porous materials such as stone, grout, unglazed tile, and concrete are often treated with a sealer or lacquer to create a smooth, water-resistant protective barrier. Sealers are used routinely in indoor applications including stone countertops, kitchen and bathroom tilework, and stone, tile, or concrete flooring."
Bathroom fixtures and glass partitions may be cleaner longer because of PFAS
Srdjan Pav/ Getty Images

The most surprising use of PFAS was on glass and porcelain surfaces, according to the report.

"Common building materials such as windows, mirrors, shower doors, bathtubs, and toilets may be treated with PFAS. Fluorinated coatings are used to make glass and ceramic surfaces more durable and resistant to heat and abrasion, to prevent soiling and grime, and to provide ‘easy to clean’ and anti-sludge characteristics."

They are in tapes, turf, and timber-derived products like OSB and MDF boards. They really do seem to be in everything, although as the study notes, there are many alternatives to them. You just have to be able to find them.

The report has suggestions for architects, designers, and builders, including education, asking for Health Product Declarations and Declare Labels, looking at the sixclassses.org website set up by the Green Science Policy Institute. The authors encourage building product manufacturers to phase them out, and they call for governments to regulate them or restrict them: "Cities, states, and even countries have already taken this step for products like food packaging and firefighting foam."

There is not much advice for the do-it-yourselfer or the person hiring a contractor to do a renovation. They don't tell you about this at Lowes or the Home Depot. And if you asked, they would probably tell you that all this stuff is approved by the EPA and all the authorities because, of course it is.

But as DiLonardo notes, "The list of health concerns about PFAS is long; the chemicals have been linked to high cholesterol, effects on the immune system, hormone disruption, low infant birth weights, and even cancer."

The Green Science Policy Group has a guide to PFAS-free products full of information on everything from clothing to car seats, but it is woefully short on building products. Perhaps now that they have issued this report, they can fill this out a bit. In the meantime, we should all ask before we buy. Eventually, they will have to be able to answer.

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