Dust from your old furniture likely contains harmful chemicals—but there’s a solution

If you’ve been thinking about throwing that old couch away, now may be a good time. According to new research, dust in buildings with older furniture is more likely to contain a number of compounds that affect our health.

In a new study published in Environment International, researchers examined rooms in three categories: no intervention – rooms in older buildings with conventional furniture; Partial intervention – rooms with at least some furniture made from healthier materials; and full intervention – rooms in recently renovated buildings with furniture free of harmful chemicals. These rooms came from 21 buildings of an unnamed university and included office suites, classrooms and common rooms. The scientists then examined the dust in these rooms for traces of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as well as common chemical flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and organophosphate esters (OPEs).

They found that the dust from rooms furnished with items free of PFAS and chemical flame retardants in recently renovated buildings had 78 percent less PFAS, 65 percent fewer OPEs and 45 percent less PBDE than rooms in older buildings older furniture.

“This suggests that replacing harmful materials with these healthier materials is a cost-effective way to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals indoors. This is where we spend most of our time,” said Anna Young, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public health and chief author of the paper, EHN said.

PFAS, PBDEs, and OPEs are all categories of chemicals that have been linked to a range of health effects, including certain cancers, decreased birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, pregnancy-related high blood pressure, asthma, and ulcerative colitis.

Several studies have previously linked concentrations of pollutants in dust and air to higher levels of body exposure. Despite their documented damage, all three classes of chemicals are often found in furniture and building materials to make products flame, stain and water resistant.

The team analyzed the dust in 47 rooms – 12 with no intervention, 28 with partial intervention, and seven with full intervention. They found at least one type of PFAS, PBDE and OPE in dust from every room they sampled. The average concentration of PFAS in rooms without intervention was more than four times higher than the average concentration of PFAS in rooms where full intervention was performed.

According to the paper, the contamination in the healthier rooms could be due to rooms that are in the same buildings as less healthy rooms, or to newer chemicals like PFAS perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA) getting into products where other substances have been left out. Another possible explanation is that these chemicals can persist when older plastics and materials are recycled and used in new products.

The upside, however, is that these chemicals “aren’t usually tied to products,” Young said. “They’re used as additives. For example, PFAS is usually applied as a coating. So that means [harmful materials] can be removed without affecting the functional integrity of the product. ”

Making interiors safer and cleaner doesn’t necessarily require large, intrusive interventions.

Young also said that while the results themselves were somewhat expected – unsurprisingly, furniture made without harmful chemicals would produce dust with lower levels of pollutants – what was new was their interventional approach to reducing entire classes of chemical Pollutants like PFAS in buildings.

When discussing solutions to remove harmful chemicals from indoor spaces, it is of great help to talk about entire classes of pollutants, Amina Salamova, an environmental chemist at Indiana University who was not associated with the paper, told EHN. There are so many individual chemicals in each of these classes – PFAS alone has around 5,000 different types, with new types being invented all the time – that it is virtually impossible to take stock.

“It is absolutely impossible to develop analytical methods to measure every single PFAS out there. It’s just too expensive and we don’t even know what half of those chemicals are,” Salamova said. By doing an inventory of an entire class together, you no longer have to search for individual exposure levels and their thresholds – details that are important to understand but ultimately distract from solutions. By looking at chemistry classes, scientists can say we need to step in and remove these contaminants on a broad front.

Despite the small sample size, Salamova said these results are pretty stark and important. The potential for a 78 percent lower PFAS exposure in these simple interventions is enormous, especially since “we still know so little about its toxicity, especially indoors”.

Most of us don’t live in “healthy” buildings, Young said – most buildings in the United States are decades old and were built at a time when safety concerns about certain materials were unknown. That’s why this research is important, she said: “The choices we make today will have decades of impact on the materials in our buildings, the chemicals we are exposed to, and ultimately our health.”

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