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and a senior advisor to Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, a coalition of nonprofits working to reform the U.S.'s outdated chemical reform policies.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."
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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.
Because it's in so many items, it's easy for PFOA to get into your household dust, which you inhale. It washes off clothing and other products into graywater which then ends up washing back into waterways. From there it pollutes animals and the food supply—high-fat dairy products often test positive for contamination. And the chemical has been linked to a whole host of health issues including thyroid problems, high cholesterol, infertility, and even preeclampsia.
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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."
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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.
Grill Your Carpet Cleaner
If you prefer carpet—or you rent a home—hire cleaners or look for products that utilize PFC-free cleansers. Ask to see an MSDS sheet for the cleansers they use and keep an eye out for any ingredient that contains "fluoro," which signifies the presence of PFCs.
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Avoid Grease-Resistant Food Packages
Microwave popcorn bags, food wrappers, and pizza boxes all contain grease-resistant coatings, as do pet-food bags and other bags designed to repel grease. Any bag that's paper on the outside with a plastic interior liner should raise red flags.
Clean Up Your Outdoor Gear
Any product that advertises a Teflon, Scotchgard, or Gore-Tex treatment contains PFCs. Look for products made with nylon treated with polyurethane or, if you can find it, canvas treated with beeswax, both of which are free of PFCs.