legislation | Jun 26, 2024 |
What do new regulations on PFAS mean for the home industry?

You’ve probably seen a flurry of headlines over the past few years concerning PFAS. Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are human-made chemicals that have been heavily used in many consumer products since the 1950s because of their stain- and water-repellent properties. But the appeal of those qualities comes with drawbacks: PFAS are now known to enter the human body through touch, and even through the air—and they don’t break down. The chemicals have been linked to an increasingly long list of health concerns like kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, thyroid problems and decreased immune response to vaccines in children.

The fashion and home sectors are particularly embroiled in the conversation around these “forever chemicals” (a term they earned because they’re essentially indestructible), as textile applications alone account for 50 percent of PFAS use globally. Because PFAS are so ubiquitous—currently, they can be found in carpets, cleaning products, clothing, cookware, cosmetics, food packaging, furnishings, outdoor apparel, paints, foam products and toilet paper (not to mention U.S. drinking water)—and the health consequences so concerning, governments from the local to federal level have begun introducing legislation to rein them in. At the highest level, the Biden-Harris administration recently finalized the first-ever national drinking water standard in an effort to prevent exposure to “forever chemicals” in the water supply. On a state level, 34 states have to date introduced 302 policies relating to PFAS, several of which directly impact home goods like carpets, rugs, fabric treatments and paints.

A phrase that comes up a lot in legislation around forever chemicals is “intentionally added”—a term that would notably exclude PFAS that can be found in recycled materials. Fabrics made from recycled materials like ocean plastic or water bottles are still going to have PFAS, and they skirt such legislative initiatives.

In 2021, California began classifying rugs and carpets with PFAS as a priority for toxic substance control, paving the way for other states to follow. Colorado recently passed a bill prohibiting the sale of indoor textile or upholstered furnishings with intentionally added PFAS, which takes effect January 1, 2025, as well as outdoor textiles and upholstery by 2027. A bill that’s currently making its way through the New York state assembly would phase out the use of PFAS in textiles and paint by 2026, and would require manufacturers to include notices on products that do contain the chemicals (potentially similar to California’s Proposition 65 warnings).

While all these legislative initiatives will certainly push plenty of home brands to adjust their offerings, some companies have already started to pivot away from using PFAS in their products. Ikea eliminated PFAS from its home textiles in 2016 and has documented its efforts to retool the rest of its product assortment; Home Depot has eliminated the chemicals from its carpet and rug offerings, and aims to come to market with PFAS-free patio and decor products by 2025; and performance-fabric giants like Crypton and Sunbrella have already phased the chemicals out of their products.

Phasing out PFAS is good news at face value, and legislation in key states is likely to push manufacturers to make sweeping changes to their products that benefit all consumers. But doing so leaves a lot of questions unanswered as well—namely, what chemicals are replacing them to achieve the same effects? A report on possible alternatives to PFAS (ranging from silicones to polyurethane to paraffin wax treatments) by the California department of toxic substance control details the known hazards to each, and while they are somewhat less panic-inducing than those attributed to PFAS, there are still concerns about reproductive harm, neurotoxicity and cancer.

In some cases, when governments begin to regulate one chemical of concern, manufacturers replace it with a similar but less-studied alternative. For example, when bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical which was used to make materials like plastic containers and children’s toys more flexible, was found to cause issues like asthma, neurodevelopmental problems, cancer, diabetes and heart disease, it was phased out only to be replaced in many cases by bisphenol S or F. Those alternatives proved to be no safer, just less researched, but allowed companies to tout their products as BPA-free.

Ikea has acknowledged this troubled history, pledging to avoid “regrettable substitutions” while researching alternatives to forever chemicals. But the company also points to the challenges of replacing PFAS in categories like electronics, where materials and technology that are PFAS-free may not yet exist and will have to undergo rigorous testing before hitting the market.

In short, while the tidal wave of legislation brought forth over the past several years is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, there’s still work to be done. Resources pointing to the dangers of PFAS are abundant, but there is far less guidance for manufacturers on how to make a conscientious adjustment to their product lines. Brands like Ikea that have vast research and development teams may be able to test alternatives, but smaller companies may be left in the lurch as legislative deadlines to change their offerings approach and they have to gamble on new formulations.

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