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It’s official: Offices, homes, and kindergartens are full of polluted air

A major culprit, according to a new study? Old rugs.

It’s official: Offices, homes, and kindergartens are full of polluted air
[Photo: DGLimages/iStock]
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Parents who’ve sent their children back to school are surely worried about COVID-19 floating in the air. Now add this to the list of concerns: A new study published in Environmental Research Letters has discovered that kindergarten classrooms have high levels of “forever chemicals” in the air. These chemicals have been tied to metabolic issues, birth defects, and cancer. And the same may be true inside your home or office.

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The culprit? Old rugs.

More specifically, the problem is old rugs that have been treated to be stain-resistant with a class of chemicals known as PFAs (polyfluorinated alkyl substances). PFAs are man-made chemicals used most popularly in textile treatment, but also in paints, firefighting equipment, outdoor gear, and Teflon cookware. They are all over our indoor environments. Because they don’t break down easily, they’re now part of our soil and water supply, too.

New research has discovered particularly high concentrations of PFAs in the air of nine out of nine kindergarten classrooms that were tested as part of the study. The levels were measured to be as high as those at an actual carpet factory. And while there’s no specific research that ties specific air concentrations of PFAs to specific diseases in children, these levels are “of concern,” says Rainer Lohmann, a professor of oceanology at the University of Rhode Island, who led the study.

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[Image: Morales-McDevitt, et. al.]
It’s not only kindergarten classrooms where researchers found airborne PFA dust. Lohmann’s team also discovered high concentrations of PFAs in the air of offices, college classrooms, and an outdoor-clothing store. Everywhere that researchers looked, they found PFAs in the air. Kindergartens were of particular concern to researchers because children are known to be both more likely to breathe in dust and more susceptible to the effects of toxic chemicals.

So how do you know if PFAs are a concern in your space? In most cases, you don’t. “It’s impossible for even a scientist to go into a house or home and see or smell what has PFAs and what does not,” says Lohmann. PFAs are not a regulated material with mandatory labels. “The lack of legislation makes it difficult.”

However, it appears that carpet manufacturers and big box retailers have begun self-regulating PFAs. Both Lowe’s and Home Depot announced they would no longer carry carpets and rugs containing PFAs, as of 2019. The problem now is that many of the old carpets are still in use, because carpets last many years. Homes are facing a similar problem born from fire-resistant couches, which, while mostly phased out today, can also emit dangerous dust into our environment for decades until they are removed.

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What can you do in this confusing situation? Lohmann suggests a three-part approach: First, swap out old stain-proof textiles in schools, workplaces, and at home, if you have them. Second, ensure proper ventilation by opening windows and making sure the HVAC is circulating in fresh or filtered air (and, by the way, the government is offering schools COVID-related funds now that can do just this). Where you can’t upgrade central HVAC systems, Lohmann offers option three: Use a stand-alone HEPA air filter.

And? “If you can, get away from stain-repellent stuff,” adds Lohmann, who admits that this advice is imperfect because of the general prevalence of PFAs in our environment. “Of course, regulation or legislation would make the whole thing a lot easier.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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