From furniture to carpets to school uniforms, many fabrics in our homes contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Chemicals are often used to protect soft furnishings and clothes from stains and water and to stop them catching fire.
Here’s what you can do to reduce your risk of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals – whether it’s from the sofa, your waterproof jacket, or a rug.
Endocrine disruptors in furniture
Furniture and mattresses are often treated with chemicals so that, in the event of a fire, they will burn more slowly.
Some of these flame retardant chemicals have been associated with certain cancers and developmental challenges in children. Some are also known to interfere with the endocrine system and damage the liver and thyroid function.
Flame-retardant chemicals are being used increasingly as we shift from natural materials to plastics in furnishings that burn more easily.
Every time we sit on the sofa or lie down to sleep we can be exposed to these harmful substances. Flame retardants can separate from the foam cushions in a sofa, and are released into the air. We can then inhale the substances.
The chemical particles can also get mixed up with household dust, and we can ingest them via our hands and mouths – for example when we’re eating. A child spending time on the floor is likely to come into contact with dust.
The law requires some products in our homes to be fire resistant. But manufacturers don’t have to use harmful chemicals to do this. Smart design and choice of materials can ensure products meet fire regulations without the need for chemical treatments. This is especially true of mattresses and sofas.
Flame retardants are not the only chemicals to watch out for in furniture and fabrics. Sofas, chairs, mattresses and carpets can also be treated with stain repellents.
A group of chemicals called PFAS are good at repelling water and grease, so they are often used in non-staining, water-resistant products. We can be exposed to PFAS through skin contact. We can also be exposed when PFAS enters the environment and our drinking water. This can happen, for example, when it is released during washing of fabrics that have been treated with PFAS stain repellents.
PFAS are found all over the world, including in the bloodstream and breast milk of humans and animals. They are linked to a wide range of health problems such as cancer, hormone disruption, reduced fertility and impacts on the immune system.
How to avoid EDCs in soft furnishings
The good news? There are ways to reduce your exposure to both flame retardants and PFAS in furniture and mattresses.
Mattresses that carry the EU Ecolabel are not treated with PFAS, and they’re not allowed to be treated with the most toxic flame retardants. So asking for products with the EU Ecolabel label will mean you will be less exposed to these chemicals at home.
Furniture giant IKEA says it phased out all brominated flame retardants from its furniture production in 2000.
Endocrine disruptors in carpets
Some of Europe’s largest carpet manufacturers, and manufacturers elsewhere including the US, sell carpets containing hazardous chemicals (pdf).
The chemicals include suspected carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and substances that represent a risk to the reproductive system (so-called reprotoxic chemicals). The chemicals will remain a problem in recycled products made from these carpets.
Of particular concern is the presence of the phthalate DEHP (bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) in carpets. The EU classifies DEHP as an endocrine disruptor and has banned it from electronics and from all toys and childcare products.
Tests suggest that not all carpets contain EDCs – a small proportion available to the commercial sector don’t. So it certainly is possible to make safer carpets.
If you do choose to have carpets or rugs in your home, here are some steps you can take to find carpets and materials that pose less of a risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals.
Look for one that hasn’t been treated with a chemical stain repellent
Some retailers have begun to remove harmful chemicals from their carpets. Home Depot in North America pledged to phase out all carpets and rugs that contain PFAS from their stores across the US and Canada, by the end of December 2019. Kingfisher, which owns UK chains B&Q and Screwfix, has promised to phase out phthalates, PFAS and flame retardants from their own-brand products by 2025.
Avoid stain or waterproofing treatments
These treatments are often not necessary and they may contain hazardous chemicals, such as PFAS.
Opt for natural materials
Natural materials such as wool or felt are less likely to contain hazardous materials than those made with synthetics. The EWG (Environment Working Group) has a useful guide on healthier carpets.
Consider getting rid of carpets
Not only can carpets contain harmful chemicals (pdf), they tend to collect household dust. It’s easier to see dust on harder surfaces such as floorboards than on carpets – and much easier to wipe it off.
Good alternatives to carpets include solid wood, tile, cork or natural linoleum flooring. These are available at various price points. It’s best not to replace carpets with PVC flooring, as this can contain phthalates and other endocrine disruptors.
Endocrine disruptors in clothes
Some clothes are treated with fluorinated chemicals called PFAS to make them waterproof or stain resistant. These include things such as waterproof jackets and school uniforms.
A recent study found that the best non-fluorinated waterproofs are as good at repelling water as their fluorinated counterparts. So PFAS are not necessary to make clothes waterproof.
To avoid exposure, buy clothes labelled PFAS-free.
You can also buy wash-in and spray-on waterproofing for shoes and clothes that don’t contain PFAS. Look out for logos that say “PFC-free”. PFC is an old name for PFAS, which some companies are still using.
For more information about PFAS and stain resistant uniforms, visit the website of UK-based environmental charity FIDRA.
Stain and water repellents in other fabrics
Retailers may use stain and water repellents on their fabrics, such as fabrics that you can buy off the roll. Some retailers are using PFAS-free repellents, showing it is possible to find fabrics that do not contain harmful fluorinated chemicals. Ask for fabrics that have not been treated with fluorinated chemicals to reduce your exposure.
Many yarns contain plastic as they are mixed with acrylic or nylon fibres to make them washable or more durable. There are natural alternatives that do not contain plastics, such as wool. Untreated wool is also naturally water repellent and flame retardant.