Is It Officially Time to Ditch PFAS?

This article was published in Architectural Digest magazine on December 22, 2022.

California is eliminating PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” in textiles by 2025. Is it time designers everywhere followed suit?

by Christina Poletto

Society has been sold on the wonders of performance fabrics for furniture as a panacea for a life with kids, pets, and the occasional spilled drop of red wine. At a minimum, they’re presented as easy to clean, resistant to excessive abrasion and wear, and worthy of enduring in high-traffic spaces. 

The popularity of these fabrics has been in our collective purview for years, and they not only endure, but have also become a rudimentary consideration of any inspired design project. Indeed, the union of style and functionality has found its calling, and what was once a basic option for commercial environments and outdoor spaces now pervades every aspect of our life and every room of our house. 

But like most things, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. And according to a multitude of sustainable design experts, there is cause for concern over PFAS, an acronym for Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances, also known as “forever chemicals.” They are referred to as such because they disintegrate at an excessively slow pace, cannot be easily destroyed, seep into water and soil matter, and can be ingested by the human body. In a nutshell, these invisible toxins are everywhere. 

PFAS are used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products resistant to staining, heat, oil, grease, and moisture, and are incorporated into a multitude of lifestyle products, including yoga clothes, food packaging, and cosmetics. They’re positioned to make our life easier, quick-drying, and more comfortable. 

This past summer, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, revealed a proposal to designate PFAS as hazardous, requiring companies to evaluate and announce to the government when the chemicals are discovered in a region’s water and soil. According to information posted by the Environmental Working Group on their website in June 2022, close to 2,860 locations in 50 states were confirmed to be contaminated with these highly toxic fluorinated compounds, and the number is climbing. The EPA’s activation of this proposal doesn’t eradicate this category of complex chemicals, but it is a major move in drawing attention to their rampant use.

Experts warn that there’s so much we don’t know about these chemicals, which have been linked to various cancers and reproductive problems, thyroid disorders, and low birth weights. And not all PFAS are created equally, making it difficult to know exactly what chemicals are being released in our environments. This profound concern has prompted action by some within the design industry.

The Healthy Materials Lab, a design research lab founded in 2015 at Parsons School of Design, is dedicated to viewing all built-environment materials through the lens of human and ecological health. Jonsara Ruth, cofounder and design director at the lab (along with Allison Mears), says that many common materials used in design contain harmful substances linked to human disease. “People are exposed to them in their homes, but also if they live or work near production or disposal facilities. And, not surprisingly, underserved communities are disproportionately exposed. That is why our work focuses specifically on improving the homes of people living in public or affordable housing,” she explains.

Fundamentally, the complexities start in the blueprint phase. “Most designers and architects practicing today were not taught that the environments and materials that surround us in the built environment have a direct impact on human and environmental health,” Ruth says. “We examine materials throughout their life cycle, from ingredient extraction to production, installation and use, through to disposal.”

Mary Holt, chief design strategist for Carnegie Fabrics, a supplier of third-party-certified sustainable and high-performance textiles, says that their business relies on innovation and recognizing opportunities for change. Starting in January 2023, Carnegie is making a commitment to no longer add any finishes with PFAS to any new products. As an alternative to most PFAS-laden performance fabrics, Holt recommends solution-dyed textiles, such as their Xorel products, which are composed of strong, impenetrable fibers and can be easily cleaned using a diluted bleach solution. Produced since 2013, Xorel requires use of fewer chemical and CO2 emissions, energy, and water to produce, and is color- and lightfast. And this month, they are introducing the world’s first bio-based indoor-outdoor fabric.

Designers seeking healthier textiles should look for fabrics and finishes that have third-party-certified sustainable attributes, Holt suggests. “Look for Cradle to Cradle certification, or Living Product Challenge certification whenever possible,” she says.

Patty Grossman, cofounder of Two Sisters Ecotextiles, which offers environmentally conscious fabrics for apparel, bedding, drapery, and upholstery, says the industry is responsible for consuming exorbitant amounts of water, chemicals, and energy: “Just choosing Global Organic Textile Standard–certified fabrics would be a fabulous positive course of action in cleaning water, eliminating toxic chemicals and their associated human ills, and in alleviating climate change.”

Grossman says humans are not acting quickly enough to avert disaster and need to consider the price being paid for buying products laden with PFAS: “Americans want their fabrics to behave—at the expense of polar bears, orca whales, clean air, clean water, chemical toxicity, climate change, and our family’s own health and safety.” Being proactive and mindful about how these products come into our lives is key, Grossman says. As is pursuing the right products from the jump, since sales can sway, or at least fortify, production. “Consumers are powerful. What they buy will be produced.”

Mindful Materials, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing, and ultimately reversing, the embodied impacts of the built environment through collective material choices, recently launched a beta version of MM Portal, a free and publicly accessible guide and a digitized common materials framework for architects, designers, material specifiers, and owners interested in finding products that align with their sustainability goals. The portal makes it easy to search products by sustainability issues, as well as by certification or standard, using an industry-aligned framework.

“We believe that everyone should be able to understand the holistic impacts of products when making decisions and that you shouldn’t have to be versed in every certification to understand how to select a product that avoids PFAS or protects water quality,” says Alex Muller, VP of communications and strategy at Mindful Materials. 

The realization among businesses and government entities of the need to avoid PFAS for all nonessential uses is growing, says Rebecca Fuoco, the science communications officer for the Green Science Policy Institute. If a fabric advertises “stain-resistant” or “water-repellent,” it’s likely PFAS are present, Fuoco explains. “Consumers may need to ask the manufacturer directly whether a specific product contains intentionally added PFAS.”

Soon to claim rank as the world’s fourth largest economy, the state of California recently signed a bill into law requiring the elimination of all PFAS in textiles by 2025. Fuoco says there should be a ripple effect creating healthier textiles throughout North America and beyond. “Hopefully, manufacturers will get ahead of the curve and stop using forever chemicals even before the mandates kick in.”