A new study has found that contaminants known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) can be readily measured in the air of indoor spaces like classrooms, offices, and homes. The findings indicate that inhalation may be yet another way these chemicals, thought to be harmful to our health, can end up in our bodies.
PFAS are a group of chemicals ubiquitously found in our modern environments. Many of them are used in manufacturing, including making non-stick products. They’re also commonly the byproducts of other chemicals or can contaminate various manufactured products, especially plastics. They’re often called “forever” chemicals because they persist in the environment and in human bodies without breaking down over time. Research has linked the accumulation of PFAS to a higher risk of several health problems in people, including cancer.
Many studies have shown that PFAS can end up in our drinking water and food easily. But researchers at the University of Rhode Island and the Green Science Policy Institute theorized that these chemicals could go airborne as well, based on earlier research of theirs.
“Some prior work implied that indoor air could be a general exposure pathway for the general public. We also know that the general public has PFAS in their bodies, but luckily, most people do not live/drink highly contaminated water (from military or fire training sites),” study author Rainer Lohmann, an oceanologist and chemist at the university, told Gizmodo in an email. “So there ought to be other, generic exposure pathways, such as inhalation of air and dust.”
To test out their theory, they developed a novel way to capture potential PFAS chemicals that had evaporated into the air, using sheets of plastic that they attached to the ceiling of numerous indoor environments. These places included several kindergarten classrooms and a home, as well as offices, laboratories, and other rooms at the university, including an elevator. For a more complete comparison, they also measured levels at places where PFAS would be expected to be highly present: the storage room of an outdoor clothing store where clothes are treated with PFAS and two carpet stores (manufacturers have traditionally used PFAS as stain and water repellents).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest PFAS levels were found in the carpet stores. But PFAS were found across every environment they tested. And in some classrooms and offices, levels were actually higher than what they found at the clothing store. The results were published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
The findings, Lohmann said, validate that their simple testing method works as intended and that these airborne PFAS “are everywhere in indoor environments, be that work, storage, or kindergartens.”
There has been some concerted effort in recent years to cut down on PFAS use. Carpet makers and major retailers like Home Depot, Lohmann notes, are reducing or eliminating the use of PFAS in their carpeting. And scientists are working on ways to break down the PFAS already abundant in our environment. But it will take widespread action across multiple manufacturing industries to significantly make a dent in the amount of PFAS we’re getting exposed to on a daily basis. In the meantime, there are some steps people can take on their own to reduce their exposure, though they won’t be completely successful.
“Sadly, there is little we know of where exactly the PFAS are from, so reducing them is tricky. Good ventilation helps; so does frequent vacuum cleaning. An approach for the educated consumer is to avoid no-stain textiles, as they often contain PFAS,” Lohmann said.