A class of toxic chemicals called PFCs, used to make products stain resistant, are probably lurking, despite the EPAs efforts.
Is your carpet hurting you or your pets? The answer could be yes, all thanks to a highly toxic, highly persistent class of chemicals used for years to make carpets stain-resistant. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began restricting the chemical in September 2013, and expanded their restrictions in January of 2015. However, any carpet manufactured before 2013 remains unaffected.
Essentially, the EPA’s rule declares that any new manufacturer or importer of certain toxic carpet treatments must alert the agency 90 days before it starts selling such products in the U.S.
The rule may seem trivial, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, says Mike Belliveau, executive director at the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a science advocacy and consulting firm that works to improve chemical safety, and a senior advisor to Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, a coalition of nonprofits working to reform the U.S.’s outdated chemical reform policies. This was the first time the EPA ever applied this type of rule to products treated with chemicals, not just to the chemicals themselves, says Belliveau, and “It may prevent the import of carpets treated with a group of chemicals that everyone recognizes as really problematic.”
The chemicals in question are perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, a group of highly toxic materials that don’t break down—PFCs have been detected in the blood of animals who live as far away as the Arctic Circle. Because they don’t break down, they build up in your body; They’ve turned up in tests of both breast milk and the umbilical-cord blood of newborn infants. You’re most likely to encounter what Belliveau calls the “poster child bad-boy chemical” of this family, PFOA, which is used to manufacture Teflon, grease-repellent coatings on food packaging and pet-food bags, as well as stain- and water-repellent treatments on carpet, clothing, backpacks, and luggage.
Unfortunately, the widespread use of PFOA isn’t restricted very much by the EPA’s rulings. “The rule exempts ongoing uses of chemicals in this family,” says Belliveau. “Rather than regulation, the EPA is relying on voluntary actions by the industry to move us away from these ongoing uses.” DuPont and seven other PFC chemical manufacturers have said they’re phasing out PFOA, but a phase-out is not a ban, and there’s no penalty if the companies choose not to comply.
Furthermore, other PFCs, in addition to PFOA, are still widely used on carpeting and upholstered furniture, as well as in after-market treatments for those same products. And making matters worse, many carpet-cleaning products contain PFC-based stain repellents to “recharge” your carpet’s existing treatment, since it wears off with age and repeated cleaning.
Adding insult to injury, chemical companies that are moving away from PFOA are simply switching to related chemicals with similar health risks and environmental hazards. “The EPA didn’t require safer alternatives under the law, and the only thing they can do under law is to negotiate voluntary agreements with the industry,” he says. “The larger problem is not solved at all.”
What can you do about it?
Given the widespread—and often unlabeled—use of PFCs in consumer goods, it would be difficult to eliminate them completely from your home. But here are a few steps you can take:
Stick With Hardwood Flooring
If you’re planning any major renovations to your home, consider ditching your carpet and opting for a flooring material that doesn’t need stain treatments, such as hardwood, cork, or real linoleum.