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Chemicals at Home: ‘We Can’t Assume it’s Safe Just Because it’s Legal’

Barry Cik has long railed against the use of chemicals in home goods. An environmental engineer and the founder of organic mattress brand Naturepedic, Cik has long been an advocate of not only eliminating chemicals from home goods, but also of enacting stronger legislation to regulate the use of chemicals in furnishings and accessories. He reiterated that sentiment during a recent webinar hosted by the Sustainable Furnishings Council.

“The CPSC hasn’t been dealing with chemicals in the way they should,” Cik said, referring to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “But they should be dealing with chemicals because that’s the problem.”

Cik isn’t alone in calling for changes to the way chemicals are used in home textiles. Organizations like the Sustainable Furnishings Council and the Green Science Policy Institute have advocated for revamping the way several classes of chemicals commonly used in home goods are regulated.

And as consumers become more cognizant of and concerned about issues like sustainability and wellness, questions about what exactly goes into the products we use in our homes are becoming more urgent.

Chemical culprits

The Green Science Policy Institute has identified six classes of chemicals that are harmful to humans and can be found in the home: PFAS, antimicrobials, flame retardants, bisphenols and phthalates, some solvents, and certain metals.

Among these, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are some of the most prevalent in home textiles, from upholstery to carpet. These chemicals are highly fluorinated and often used to provide stain resistance to home fabrics, but they’re also linked to a variety of health risks.

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“There are thousands of chemicals in that class, and a lot have been shown to cause harm, including cancer and even immune response resistance to vaccines, which is even more important now,” said Carol Kwiatkowski, science and policy senior associate, Green Science Policy Institute.

But as the trend of bringing performance fabrics inside the home—due to their stain resistance and cleanability—continues to grow, potential exposure to PFAS chemicals increases, as well.

“The fluorinated treatments make it possible to repel oil and water, but there many solutions that do not repel oil but they repel water-based stains just fine,” said Susan Inglis, executive director, Sustainable Furnishings Council. “The problem is that we’ve gotten used to thinking we can let our children eat chocolate ice cream on the white sofa and it will wipe off—maybe we don’t want to be doing that because what makes it possible to wipe it off also causes health problems.”

Another chemical treatment that has become popular in home textiles, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, is antimicrobials. But while they sound good in theory, Inglis said the benefits of antimicrobials don’t outweigh the potential risks.

“Antimicrobials are actually not necessary for halting the spread of Covid,” she said. “Covid is a kind of molecule that responds to soap, so we don’t need antimicrobials—all we need is soap and water. Antimicrobials are basically pesticides, and there are different degrees and different severities, but if it’s killing some form of life, it’s probably impacting other forms of life.”

And while many companies are opting to add antimicrobials to their products, little research exists proving efficacy, not to mention safety.

“Antimicrobial is becoming a bigger deal—they’re proliferating everywhere and they have not been studied as much as they should be,” Inglis said. “And some things don’t have to be studied by law, especially if you’re not making a health claim and the product does not have stringent requirements.”

The end user isn’t the only one potentially affected by these chemicals. Much of the impact of these substances occurs in the production phase, be it exposure to people working in the plant or environmental pollution.

“One thing that varies in terms of human health risk is some of them are more harmful in the production phase as opposed to the use or disposal,” Kwiatkowski said. “Problems during production can include everything from worker exposure to wastewater coming out of the plant loaded with all these chemicals, and some of the chemicals aren’t able to be removed by wastewater treatment systems.”

Limited legislation

While states like California—which in 2020 banned the sale of new upholstered furniture, juvenile products, and mattresses made with flame retardant chemicals—have laws to limit the use of chemicals in home products, few regulations exist at the federal level.

“Very little has been done in terms of regulation,” Inglis said. “The CPSC has adopted a rule about flame retardants that is a match to the California standard. And on the PFAS chemicals—those chemicals we use for so many stain treatments—there is a movement toward regulation in numerous states, but nothing dramatic has happened yet.”

California has enacted multiple standards over the years related to home furnishings, but fabrics are exempt from many of them.

“On VOCs like formaldehyde, California years ago led the way setting their standard, but it only relates to fiber board and has noting to do with textiles,” she said. “But in fact, VOCs come off of textiles all the time.”

And while California leads the way on regulation, federal standards lag for a number of reasons. That’s why the Green Science Policy Institute launched its six-class approach to chemical regulation in an attempt to make regulating thousands of chemicals less complicated.

“One of the reasons that we made this six classes approach is the chemicals are not being thoroughly regulated in part because there are so many of them,” Kwiatkowski said. “And the EPA, which is underfunded, can take years and decades to study one chemical because they get so much pushback from the chemical companies. We’re pushing to this class approach because we know all the PFAS we’ve studied are bad. So let’s just not use any PFAS as a class, and that’s a better way forward.”

In lieu of legislation, the Sustainable Furnishings Council launched its “What’s It Made Of?” campaign to encourage consumers to research and question the materials and chemicals in furnishings. Inglis said until a solid legislative framework exists to regulate harmful chemicals in home goods, consumers need to advocate for themselves to ensure the safety of the furnishings in their homes.

“Asking questions such as ‘what’s it made of?’ is very important,” she said. “We cannot assume that the government is keeping us safe—that isn’t the way our government’s relationship to chemicals has always been. We can’t assume it’s safe just because it’s legal, and we must ask questions about the various side effects of the things we’re bringing into our homes.”