PROVIDENCE – We can literally breathe in the so-called chemicals forever linked to cancer, hormonal disruptions, high cholesterol, and other health issues.
As awareness has grown around the public health threats posed by per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances used in food packaging, cookware, textiles and other products, concerns have focused on the contaminated drinking water supplies.
But a new study by scientists at the University of Rhode Island and the Green Science Policy Institute in California has found that indoor air can also be contaminated with PFAS compounds.
Researchers have detected the chemicals in the air of classrooms, offices, laboratories and a home, according to the study published this week in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
In some locations, the levels were as high as those measured at an outerwear store and a pair of carpet stores, the control sites used in the study where products containing PFAS were known to be stored and sold.
The study, which used a technique developed by a team at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, sheds light on what may be a greater than expected source of exposure to chemicals that accumulate in the body and have been linked to a variety of health impacts that also include low birth weight and problems with the immune system.
Food and water have long been considered the two main sources of human exposure, but the study indicates that air is a third possible route.
The results were surprising even for Rainer Lohmann, lead author of the study and professor of oceanography at URI.
“We had these high-detection locations that we weren’t expecting,” said Lohmann, co-director of a partnership between URI, Harvard and the Silent Spring Institute that studies PFAS.
Why PFAS chemicals have raised concerns
Hailed for their ability to repel oil, water and grease, PFAS compounds were used by Dupont to make Teflon and 3M in Scotchgard. Their use was also effective in smothering petroleum fires, allowing foams to spread more easily and form tighter plugs on flammable liquids.
Today, there are several thousand substances that at one time or another have been used in everything from microwave popcorn bags and rain jackets to dental floss and guitar strings.
The compounds are of great concern because they do not break down in the environment over time, hence the nickname “chemical forever”.
Much has been written about how chemicals have polluted drinking water. The best-known case involved DuPont and was the subject of the film “Dark Waters,” which told the story of the pollution caused by the company in West Virginia.
Military bases, including Cape Cod, have also been accused of using fire-fighting foams that seeped into groundwater.
Here in Rhode Island, the only time chemical levels exceeded federal recommendations was in Burrillville. The contamination was attributed to foams stored in liquid form in a fire station.
These occurrences, although rarely rare, do not fully explain why the compounds have been found in humans on such a broad basis. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found PFAS in the blood of 97% of test subjects.
“The puzzling part is that we can show that almost everyone has PFAS in their blood,” Lohmann said. “But most people don’t live near groundwater contaminated with PFAS. The question is, where does the average American citizen get the PFAS?
He and the other scientists set out to determine whether indoor spaces – where, according to the study, humans spend 90% of their time – might provide an answer.
Using thin sheets of plastic to collect the volatile gases given off by products containing PFAS, they sampled 20 locations, including carpeted kindergarten classrooms in California and various URI campus sites, and found the chemicals. in 17 of them.
Several of the university’s classrooms and kindergartens had higher air concentrations of PFAS than the storage room at the outdoor clothing store in California, which was full of vests and gear treated with PFAS. The highest concentrations were found at the two carpet stores, both located in Rhode Island.
With the chemicals so prevalent, members of the research team believe the only way to reduce contamination is through stricter regulations, like those recently passed in Maine, to eliminate unnecessary use of PFAS.
“As long as they continue to be used in products, we will all eat, drink and breathe PFAS,” said Tom Bruton, study 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.”