While awareness and regulation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has been on the rise, the focus has often been on their presence in firefighting foams and water-, grease- and stain-resistant products like Teflon. But the chemicals also are found in a wide variety of building materials, and the construction industry could have a significant role in limiting their use.
“As specifiers and consumers, we have power here. If we can lower our demand, we can elicit a response by manufacturers and reduce or eliminate the production of toxins over time,” said Charley Stevenson, owner and principal of Integrated Eco Strategies. He says the process has gotten easier, both in terms of improved access to product ingredients and greater availability of alternatives.
Stevenson spoke at a July 21 webinar sponsored by green buildings advocacy group Built Environment Plus and the Living Future Collaborative, convening experts and industry professionals to discuss how to better identify and avoid the use of PFAS in construction.
PFAS, a class of chemicals that numbers in the thousands, can have potential adverse health impacts that include cancer risk, suppression of the immune system and higher cholesterol levels. Because its varied applications include weatherproofing, anti-corrosion and lubrication, among others, its use in buildings products is far-flung and diverse—a $26-billion market, according to a report from the Green Science Policy Institute.
The chemicals are used in roofing—from coatings on metal roofs to prevent corrosion, scratches and reflect solar rays to roofing nails and asphalt shingles. Other PFAS-containing coatings include paints with certain resistant properties, wood sealers and metal coatings used for bridges and industrial construction. PFAS can be found in grout, concrete sealers, O-rings, caulk, adhesives and electrical wiring, as well as in glass to make it more durable and prevent dust build up—including in solar energy panels.
Identification of PFAS in products is a challenge for architects and engineers, one that often requires a certain amount of proactive action, such as requesting manufacturers to disclose product ingredients and using that information to choose products for projects.
Tools like Health Product Declaration database and Declare Labels allow architects, designers and engineers to identify PFAS in products being considered for projects, according to Hannah Ray, science and policy fellow at the institute and an editor of its PFAS report.
The analysis itself provides some of those alternatives. For sun reflection, for example, it suggests silicone-modified polyester, and silicone and acrylic versions of weatherproofing membranes, galvanized steel for gutters. Sealant alternatives include silicones and epoxy, as well as polyester and furan resins.
Choosing alternatives to PFAS has benefits that extend throughout the project cycle where PFAS may impact workers and communities.
“Instead of just thinking about interior occupant health, we're thinking about installers, factory workers and fenceline communities, and ultimately using our building projects to reduce and eliminate where possible the production of toxins,” said Charley Stevenson, owner and principal of Integrated Eco Strategies.
These actions require a level of awareness and proactive measures that may be difficult for time-constrained designers and builders.
Legislation that identifies and bans production of those products is set to help lessen the load.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on July 21 regulating PFAS, as it had in 2020 when the bill stalled in the Senate. This year's measure has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has ramped up attention to PFAS regulation in the Biden administration. As the possibility of added federal action trudges on, a number of states also have passed their own regulations.
“The states have really been where action is on chemical related issues,” said Laura Spark, a senior policy advocate for Clean Water Action, a clean water advocacy group, noting for example a new law in Maine that phases out by 2030 virtually all uses of PFAS except those necessary for health, safety or societal functioning, similar to a ban put in place by the European Union in 2019. Manufacturers must also disclose the presence of PFAS in new products beginning in 2023.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott in May signed into law a bill banning the sale of consumer products containing PFAS, including in rugs and stain-resistant materials.
Currently, 31 states have policies regulating PFAS in some form, according to Safer States.