sustainability | Aug 23, 2023 |
10 low-stress ways to avoid forever chemicals in your next project

When interior designers spec materials for a project, they have many considerations to make, from the pretty—color, pattern, texture—to more practical considerations like durability and sustainability. But there’s another more niche factor to take into account: the presence of PFAS (the acronym for “per- and polyfluorinated substances”), commonly called “forever chemicals.”

Scientists are still learning about all the ways PFAS impact health, but studies have already linked elevated levels of PFAS with cancer, high cholesterol, weakened immune systems, and thyroid and reproductive disruption. While much has been made in the news lately about the presence of PFAS in clothing and our drinking water, PFAS are also lurking in our homes.

Used to make textiles stain- and water-resistant, PFAS are found in fabrics, mattresses and other upholstery materials. In addition to our risk of direct skin-to-skin exposure to these products, PFAS can break down over time and get into the air we breathe. But changing the way we furnish a home can greatly reduce its inhabitants’ exposure to PFAS.

Although there is no legal requirement (yet) for companies to disclose the presence of PFAs in their products, there are ways to sniff them out—and minimize their presence in the home. “Interior designers should think of themselves as advocates for safer products for their customers and clients,” says Sujatha Bergen, health campaigns director at the National Resources Defense Council, a New York–based international environmental advocacy nonprofit fighting to remove PFAS from textiles. “They have the power to push for increased transparency and a reduction in the use of toxic chemicals.”

Here are a few strategies to cut down on PFAS in your design projects—and to encourage the industry to eliminate them from production altogether.

Read Between the Lines
One of the most popular uses of PFAS is to make a material more durable. If you find a textile described with keywords like “waterproof,” “stain-repellent” or “dirt-repellent,” you should assume that a fabric contains PFAS, says Bergen. And don’t be fooled by promises that a product is “PFOA-free” or “PFOS-free”—those two particular PFAS chemicals have already been eliminated from U.S. production, but there are many other PFAS in use.

Debunk the ‘Performance’ Myth
Quiz a few designers about the fabrics choice in projects, and you’re likely to hear that they chose performance fabrics for the high-traffic or kid-focused areas of the home. However, it turns out, those specially treated fabrics may not even offer the added stain protection we all thought they did. A recent study published in the AATCC Journal of Research, a scientific journal by the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists dedicated to materials research, tested both performance and untreated fabrics by spilling coffee and salad dressing on to them. The performance fabrics fared marginally better when they were new, but over time, they were no more stain-resistant than the other fabrics. Armed with this knowledge, designers can offer naturally durable alternatives to treated performance fabrics when appropriate.

Seek Out Certification
Third-party sustainability certification is not a guaranteed way to avoid PFAS, but it can be a starting point, says Renée Sharp, a strategic advisor for Safer States, a nonprofit that works at the state and federal level to eliminate toxic chemicals. Most major textile certifications now address PFAS, but some are more stringent than others: Bluesign, ZDHC, OEKO-TEX and GOTS all ban or restrict the use of PFAS. Sharp notes that OEKO-TEX, for example, has stronger standards.

It’s important to remember that certifications are all promoting different values or qualities. One notable exception if you’re hoping to limit forever chemicals is Greenguard certification, which is focused on limiting VOCs and does allow PFAS chemicals to be used in its certified products; in fact, a peer-reviewed study conducted by Silent Spring Institute—a Massachusetts-based nonprofit dedicated to finding the environmental cause of breast cancer—found that four out of six Greenguard-certified products tested contained PFAS chemicals.

Ask Questions
If you’re mourning a favorite fabric that you suspect may contain PFAS, reach out to its maker. Ask the manufacturer directly whether the product contains PFAS. In 2021, a coalition including the Sustainable Furnishings Council, Center for Environmental Health and the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons launched the “What’s It Made Of?” initiative, which advocates for interior design pros to ask their suppliers if chemicals of concern, including PFAS, are present in the products that are specified and purchased. Once shoppers demand PFAS-free and other nontoxic products, more will come to market.

Define ‘Necessary’
Sometimes, the easiest way to cut back on PFAS is to shift your thinking. “Ask yourself, ‘Is [the product] absolutely necessary?’” says Bergen. “Oftentimes, we are upsold—we like the idea of being ready for any situation. But when you are talking about chemicals linked to cancers and other serious health impacts, unless they are absolutely essential for safety, they should be avoided.” PFAS in consumer products almost never meet that threshold, she adds, despite the growing consumer demand for performance fabrics. One place where the trade-offs might make sense is health care settings, which might warrant the use of stain-resistant fabrics for patient safety despite their inherent health risks.

Explore Natural-Fiber Textiles
While it may be tricky to figure out whether PFAS lurk in synthetic textiles, untreated natural-fiber fabrics that contain no added PFAS are probably a safe bet (though it is possible they may contain trace amounts if there is cross contamination at the manufacturing stage). In a presentation about PFAS from the Sustainable Furnishings Council, Susan Inglis, the organization’s former executive director and current resident expert, suggests wool as a naturally stain-resistant fiber to consider for projects. Other safe textiles include 100 percent linen or cotton.

Learn to Love a Slipcover
If performance fabric upholstery has been your mainstay for high-traffic spaces, consider using machine-washable slipcovers instead. “Make your interiors more washable, and reduce the need to be able to spill with impunity,” says Inglis.

Educate Clients About Care
Once you give up those stain-repellent fabrics, you may be worried about your clients’ homes going to seed shortly after install. Take the time to emphasize proper care for textiles and upholstery. Jenon Bailie, merchandising and design director at Room & Board, a company that is actively working with its vendor partners to remove PFAS from its product portfolio, says to always attend to spills immediately by blotting up as much of the stain as possible with a clean, dry cloth. For spot-cleaning small stains on upholstery, Bailie recommends Folex Instant Carpet Spot Remover, Crypton Purple or Gold Upholstery Stain Remover. Need a parting gift after an install? Consider a care kit with rags and the best cleaning supplies as a thoughtful touch to leave behind, so clients can protect and preserve your team’s hard work.

Make Sure They’ve Got a Good Vacuum
Despite your best efforts, some PFAS may get into your client’s home. One way for them to combat this long-term is to invest in a vacuum with a HEPA filter—and to use it often to suck up the potentially PFAS-containing dust. Need recommendations? Bob Vila recently rounded up this year’s best options.

Know That Change Is Possible
If getting PFAS out of the interior design supply chain sounds like an impossible task, look to the carpet industry for inspiration. After several studies pointed to PFAS-treated carpets as a major source of exposure, especially for babies and children, the industry voluntarily phased PFAS out of its products. (You can read a case study on that process from the Green Science Policy Institute here.) With encouragement from interior designers and consumers, other sectors of the home furnishings market can follow a similar path. Change is already underway: California, Colorado, Maine and New York have enacted legislation restricting the use of intentionally added PFAS in clothing and textiles in the years to come—California’s law, which covers all textiles, goes into effect in 2025.

Homepage image: Adobe Firefly


Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.

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