Love in the Time of PFAS
Hosts Monica and Erika seek out some tough love on one of our most intimate relationships: the one between buildings and our bodies. Learn what happens when chemical manufacturers withhold health information from consumers, specifically about a class of synthetic chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). You’ll hear from environmental health and design experts as well as Healthy Materials Lab founders Alison Mears and Jonsara Ruth.
- Get your own Silent Spring Institute Detox Me Action Kit.
- Learn more about Technical Bulletin 117 and the flame retardants in your furniture. Further reading: this guide to from the Environmental Working Group.
- Learn what types of building products offer the best chance of getting you to toxic-free with the Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree Product Guidance. Disclosure: The Healthy Building Network’s experts shared their knowledge with us as we developed the Precautionary List and Transparency website.
- Select healthier materials in K-12 schools using our Healthy Schools by Design guide.
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a widely used class of chemicals that are persistent in our environment. The widespread use of PFAS, durability, and ability to accumulate in our bodies means that this chemical class is found nearly everywhere and in everyone.
“All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” —Paracelsus, Swiss physician and scientist (1493–1541)
Simply put, “the dose makes the poison,” yet our modern relationship with chemicals is not so simple: we have endless new chemical formulations, developmental exposures early in life, chemical interactions, environmental and genetic conditions, and lack of documentation. To address this toxic relationship, we need the facts!
Here are a few resources that can help you:
Want to learn about other toxic chemicals?
- Environmental Working Group provides research summaries on toxic chemicals, including BPA, flame retardants, and lead.
- Perkins&Will’s Transparency Tool can teach you more about bisphenols.
How do toxic substances get into our bodies?
- The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has a simple 4-page guide to chemicals’ impact on the human body’s different systems.
- This 2014 piece in The Atlantic discusses how exposure to chemicals can lead to behavioral and cognitive problems.
- In the episode, Monica mention six classes of chemicals you should avoid. Find the list at the Green Science Policy Institute, which includes PFAS, antimicrobials, flame retardants, bisphenols and phthalates, some solvents, and certain metals.
Toxic materials disproportionately exist and persist in the indoor environments of communities of color and low-income families.
Here are a few examples:
- Formaldehyde was found in the FEMA trailers provided to house displaced residents after Hurricane Katrina.
- People living in homes built before 1978 are more likely to be exposed to lead paint. Unremediated building stock impacts young children and pregnant mothers the most.
- Asbestos remains in schools, despite the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA).
- Flame retardants found in older furniture have been shown to disproportionately affect people of color and individuals with lower educational attainment or household income.
- PFAS contamination in ground and surface water burdens communities that live near industrial and military sites that used or released the compounds.
Check out this great new spatial tool from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It focuses on environmental racism at the household level and is part of a larger interactive resource in the Greater Boston area.
Anna uses the phrase “environmentally persistent,” referring to the length of time a chemical or contaminant remains in the environment, according to the U.S. EPA.
Dr. Anna Young is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Environmental Health and Associate Director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research focuses on healthier materials and products in buildings as a strategy to reduce our exposures to complex mixtures of hormone-disrupting chemicals. She recently earned her Ph.D. and M.S. in Environmental Health.
- Egeghy, P. P. et al. The exposure data landscape for manufactured chemicals. Sci. Total Environ. 414, 159–166 (2012).
- Calafat, A.M., Wong, L.Y., Kuklenyik, Z., Reidy, J.A., Needham, L.L., 2007. Polyfluoroalkyl chemicals in the U.S. population: Data from the national health and nutrition examination survey (NHANES) 2003-2004 and comparisons with NHANES 1999-2000. Environ. Health Perspect. 115, 1596–1602. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.10598
- Ospina, M., Jayatilaka, N.K., Wong, L.-Y., Restrepo, P., Calafat, A.M., 2018. Exposure to organophosphate flame retardant chemicals in the U.S. general population: Data from the 2013–2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Environ. Int. 110, 32–41. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2017.10.001
- Sjödin, A., Wong, L.-Y., Jones, R.S., Park, A., Zhang, Y., Hodge, C., DiPietro, E., McClure, C., Turner, W., Needham, L.L., Patterson, D.G., 2008. Serum Concentrations of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Polybrominated Biphenyl (PBB) in the United States Population: 2003–2004. Environ. Sci. Technol. 42, 1377–1384. https://doi.org/10.1021/es702451p
- OECD, 2018. Toward a New Comprehensive Global Database of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs).
Xindi shared her favorite PFAS articles with us, and we’re passing them on to you. Warning, they are the real science deal:
- Scientific Basis for Managing PFAS as a Chemical Class
- A review of the pathways of human exposure to poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) and present understanding of health effects
- The concept of essential use for determining when uses of PFASs can be phased out
Dr. Xindi Hu, a lead data scientist at Mathematica, is an expert in applying geospatial data and analyses to support evidence-based policymaking. She currently serves as technical lead for a multisite wastewater surveillance study to assess the policy value of this novel data source in curbing the COVID-19 pandemic. Before joining Mathematica in 2018, Hu was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, where she earned her Sc.D. in risk and decision sciences from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research has been published in journals such as Environmental Health Perspectives and the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology and has received media coverage from the Washington Post, CNN, and Reuters.
Check out more of Dr. Hu’s research here.
Here are some great resources to get you acquainted with our longtime friend PFAS.
- The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Research Brief tells you what PFAS are and what we know about their health impacts.
- The Green Science Policy Institute Report highlights which building and interior products can expose us to PFAS.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers and Overview of PFAS.
- Grouping PFAS chemicals may help us address the chemical class more easily than tackling the 4,700 chemicals individually.
Our First Date, 1946: The “Meet Cute” Invention of Teflon
- Monica: “Today, the American Chemical Society registers 50 million unique natural and manmade chemicals , the vast majority of which were discovered in the post-war era and lack publicly available risk data.”
- This 2018 article in Wired has the facts on the transition of PFAS chemicals “From Wartime to Dinner Time.”
Our Second Date, 1950: The “Background Check” Brings the Science
- In this Environmental Working Group timeline, you see the evidence against PFAS chemicals.
Our Third Date, 1976: “Too Big to Ignore” Leads to TSCA
- Get the specifics on Toxic Substances Control Act.
- Understand the weaknesses in U.S. chemical policy, especially TSCA.
- Want to know more about that Parisian love story, REACH? Check out this link here!
- Nerd alert: Sperm counts have dropped by 60 percent since 1973. PFAS could be to blame.
Our Fourth Date, 1998: The “Caught in the Act” Dupont Lawsuit
Our Fifth Date, 2006: Guenther 5, the Precautionary List, and “Standing up for Ourselves”
- Learn more about the perfect union between Perkins&Will and Guenther 5 Architects in this 2010 article.
- In this great article, Robin Guenther explains why material selection matters and how the Precautionary List can help us choose safer materials.
- Make healthier selections using Perkins&Will’s Transparency Tool.
- Further reading about how the architecture and design industry has stepped up to address this issue. While it is a “toolkit,” the introduction also delivers a history and overview of the Healthy Materials Movement.
Jonsara Ruth is a design agitator for healthier futures. She is co-founder and design director of Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design, where she is associate professor and founding director of the MFA Interior Design program. Central to her research is incorporating diverse perspectives to study human experience, behavior, health, and sustainable principles as primary motivations for design. Material curiosities drive her research.
Jonsara is also a designer, artist, and founder of Salty Labs, a collaborative design studio established to improve human and environmental health through design. The studio’s focus is creating viscerally designed interiors, events, furniture, and objects using healthy, sustainable, reused materials and low-energy intensive fabrication methods. As a designer, she has led creative and production teams to mass-produce the healthiest environmentally friendly furniture available in America. Elevating everyday human experience is her underlying pursuit.
Alison Mears, AIA, LEED AP, is an architect, associate professor of Architecture, and director and co-founder of Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design. She leverages her knowledge and experience as a long-term academic leader and her practice-based experience as an architect to confront one of the more serious and often-overlooked environmental challenges of our time: the health of the built environment. She is also co-principal investigator of the Healthy Affordable Materials Project (HAMP). The Project is a long-term coalition of four organizations who work together to remove harmful chemicals from the built environment. Mears’ work draws from the long tradition at The New School University’s commitment to promoting community-based sustainability, social engagement, and environmental justice.
Mission of Healthy Materials Lab:
“We are Healthy Materials Lab, a design research lab at Parsons School of Design. We are dedicated to a world in which people’s health is placed at the center of all design decisions. We are committed to raising awareness about toxic chemicals in building products and to creating resources for the next generation of designers and architects to make healthier places for all people to live.”
Affordable Housing: https://healthymaterialslab.org/affordable-housing
Learning Hub: https://healthymaterialslab.org/learning-hub
Materials Collection: https://healthymaterialslab.org/material-collections
Check out the Healthy Materials Lab resources:
Robin Guenther tells us she returns again and again to this 2010 article from the Harvard Business Review, because it is already calling attention to how we can hold companies accountable for the materials in our built environment.
Robin Guenther is a principal at Perkins&Will and senior advisor to Health Care Without Harm. Her innovative healthcare projects have been published nationally and internationally. Healthcare Design magazine named her the “#1 Most Influential Designer in Healthcare,” and Fast Company has included her as one of the “100 most creative people in business.” She was a 2014 TEDMED speaker.
Robin works at the intersection of health care architecture and sustainable policy and participates in a wide range of advocacy initiatives while continuing to practice. She is a Culture of Health Leader. She co-coordinated the Green Guide for Health Care, served on LEED for Healthcare committee, and released the second edition of “Sustainable Healthcare Architecture,” with Gail Vittori in May 2013. In 2005, she received the Center for Health Design’s Changemaker Award for her leadership and innovation in the design of healing environments.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
PFOS, PFOA, PFBS, PFDA, PFHXs, and all your regrettable per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance substitutes,
I am so over you.
—Voiced and written by Lauren Neefe
This love has gone to my head
Sweet as lead,
Fragrant as formaldehyde.
At first glance, you were mighty fine,
Yet you are anything but benign.
—Voiced by Bri Dazio. Written by Erika Eitland.
Fate of Phthalates
What gals heally hate:
Higher Preterm Birth Rates,
Chemicals that affect our weight …
So let’s start on a clean slate
To create an environment where we want to date
and healthier ways to quicken our heart rate.
—Voiced by Karen Kentile. Written by Erika Eitland.
I can’t leave it unsaid
In a nightly tryst, bromine and chlorine entered the skin!
In a hopeful policy win,
They were banned.
But while the crowds rejoiced, the corporations planned,
Replacing it with something not yet scanned.
—Written by Erika Eitland
Handful of Hazards
It ain’t dandy
to be friendly
with flame retardants
I say “NO THANKS”
to fragrant formaldehyde.
Why should I abide
while manufacturers ride
the profits from stain treatments
staining our health?
Don’t play stealth like it lessens the evil.
PVC? “Problematic Violating Criminal”!
Who can be jovial
Your forever home ought to be jail.
—Written by Mandy Miller
This episode features music courtesy of Epidemic Sound:
“Head over Heels” by Etienne Roussel
“Icy You” by Jerry Lacey
“It’s Not Me” by Arthur Benson
“The Day Our Eyes Met” by Medité
“Sunshine in My Pocket” by Trailer Worx
“Evanescent Doubt” by Leimoti
“Damned if We Do” (Instrumental Version) by Maybe
“Corny Old Love Song” by Franz Gordon
Special thanks to our poem readers and writers, some of whom didn’t make it into this episode but still deserve our Galentine’s Day love: Bri Dazio, Karen Kentile, Mandy Miller, Eunice Wong and Drs. Erika Eitland and Lauren Neefe.
[Record-needle static and cheesy romantic song “Head over Heels” by Etienne Roussel / Epidemic Sound plays.]
Lauren Neefe: Roses are red, violets are blue, [Magic harp sounds] PFOS, PFOA, PFNA, PFDA, PFBS, PFHxS, and all your regrettable per and polyfluoroalkyl substance substitutes?
[Record scratch and music stops.]
Lauren Neefe: Heh. I am so over you.
[“Head over Heels” starts playing again.]
Erika Eitland: It is that magical time of year where we get to tell everyone and anyone we love them. It’s Valentine’s Day, people. And Ms. Monica. I love that I am on this quest with you to make a healthier built environment. You are my persevering policy wonk, my determined designer, and a fabulous friend.
Monica Kumar: And Ms. Erika, you were my public health intervention last year.
Erika Eitland: I think I just got a little oxytocin boost from that verbal hug.
Monica Kumar: Nerd alert. But funny enough, this Valentine’s Day is so timely because today we’re talking about love and relationships, not just the L-O-V-E star-crossed lovers kind of love, but our modern human relationships in all their messiness.
[“Head over Heels” fades out]
Now, Erika, I’m sure you can relate: In my 20s I experienced some pretty appalling dating behavior in this quest for love.
Erika Eitland: Oh, girl.
Monica Kumar: But today, I’m calling out one relationship that’s been rocky for decades. It’s the relationship we have with chemicals.
Erika Eitland: Uhhhh, where are we going with this, Monica?
Monica Kumar: OK, OK, hear me out. See, chemicals make our modern life possible. They help us preserve food, and they give us life saving medicine. But the truth is that many of these chemicals are lurking in our built environment and have real negative impacts on our bodies.
Erika Eitland: So let me put this together. This Valentine’s Day, we’re calling out toxic relationships with toxic chemicals?
Monica Kumar: You got it, Erika. In this healthy buildings moment, we’re learning from our past mistakes and getting to a world where toxic free is the standard, not the exception.
[“Icy You” by Jerry Lacey / Epidemic Sound music cues.]
Monica Kumar: Welcome to Inhabit. I’m Monica Kumar. I’m an interior designer.
Erika Eitland: I’m Dr. Erika Eitland. I’m a public health scientist.
Monica Kumar: We’re part of global architecture and design firm Perkins&Will. So we like to talk about … buildings.
Erika Eitland: Not just buildings, Monica, but like the broader built environment, too—especially the people who, you know, inhabit them. We spend most of our time in these spaces, and they change us every day, from our mood to our lung capacity.
Monica Kumar: Those changes are shaped by decisions that designers, manufacturers, building owners and policy makers have made long before you entered the room. How’s that for power?
Erika Eitland: To ensure everyone has access to a healthy building, we need the powerful trifecta of design, policy, and research. Imagine this is the cinnamon, cardamom and clove in Bengali cooking—a dish will not be the same without them working together. And the quest for toxic-free building materials is a clear example of why we need all three.
Monica Kumar: Why we need … cinnamon? Or, to be clear, we’re talking about design, policy, and research, right?
Erika Eitland: Yes, yes, yes, yes. In this episode, we are done with the toxic relationships of our youth, and we are investing in some self-love by asking one central question: How can design help us stage an intervention that makes toxic-free building products the default?
Monica Kumar: And in the spirit of Galentine’s Day—
Erika Eitland: Oooooo!
Monica Kumar: We are going to bring in—that’s right—some formidable women to call out the science, history, and statistics. Like any good friend, they will point out the red flags that we can’t see ourselves.
Erika Eitland: But obviously we’re getting something from these chemicals or we wouldn’t keep coming back for more—
Monica Kumar: That’s right, Erika. We’re getting a lot from them. So in our segment “History in 5 Key Dates,” we share one of our most complicated chemical love stories to show you exactly why breaking up is so. damn. hard.
[Music changes to Instruments-only stem of “Icy You”]
Monica Kumar: Later in the episode, we speak with two women who are helping us overcome our short-sightedness when selecting building materials. We’ll talk to Alison Mears and Jonsara Ruth from the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design.
Erika Eitland: We like to be fun on Inhabit. But let us be clear: Toxic relationships,
[Music drops out abruptly.]
Erika Eitland: they are not funny. Most importantly, the chemicals found in our dust, known as “legacy pollutants,” disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income families. This didn’t happen by accident. It is due to decades of locating homes and schools close to industrial sites, cheap building materials, poor maintenance, and failure to remediate once an issue is found.
Monica Kumar: It’s like we said in the last episode: Where you live can predict how long you live.
[“Icy You” Instruments-only stem fades back in.]
Now we might work at an architecture and design firm, but we’re making this podcast because everyone needs to be able to make the built environment better. So we’ll point you to some ways you can build a better relationship with the chemicals in your life.
[Ascending harp sounds like a magic wand, and a heartbeat starts.]
Bri Dazio: The poem I’m going to read is “Neurotoxicity.”
This love has gone to my head,
Sweet as lead,
Fragrant as formaldehyde.
At first glance, you were mighty fine,
but you were anything but benign.
[Heartbeat gets louder than fades]
Erika Eitland: As the saying goes, the first step towards making change is recognizing the problem. And we don’t fully understand our problem with chemicals yet.
Monica Kumar So here’s Dr. Anna Young, a healthy materials expert, to help us name the problem.
[Quick ascending harp sound, like a magic wand.]
Dr. Anna Young: Well, when you first meet hormone-disrupting chemicals, it’s like being handed a whole bouquet of red flags. For one, they’re really environmentally persistent, which means you can’t easily break up with them. It’s the worst kind of controlling relationship. And because they’re used so widely in many building materials, and consumer products, they are in the bodies of the vast majority of us. There’s no consent there usually, because they don’t have to be disclosed as ingredients, for example, in your couch, or your carpet, or many consumer products. And as a result, they seep into all aspects of our lives. They are in the materials we touch, they get into the food and water we consume. They get into the air we breathe, and they even migrate into the dust we unknowingly swallow all day long. And before you ask, yes, we ingest on average about 20 milligrams of indoor dust every single day.
Erika Eitland: So you are what your sofa is?
Dr. Anna Young: Yeah.
Erika Eitland: That’s disgusting.
Dr. Anna Young: Yeah, pretty much. [laughs]
Erika Eitland: Now have these chemicals been tested?
Dr. Anna Young: It’s a really important question Erika, and unfortunately no.
Erika Eitland: Oh god.
Dr. Anna Young: The most important red flag here. These chemicals have not been tested before they enter into a relationship with you. Of about 500,000 chemicals in an EPA inventory, only about 20 percent have any sort of hazard information.
Erika Eitland: Oh my gosh.
Dr. Anna Young: Less than 1 percent have data on their presence in humans. And less than a fraction of 1 percent are restricted in products in the U.S. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a risk I want to take.
Erika Eitland: Not a lot of information going into this. What can we learn from public health to help us bridge this gap?
Dr. Anna Young: Well, there are some chemicals we know are harmful to health, and PFAS forever chemicals are one of those groups of chemicals. Like any toxic relationship, forever chemicals mess with our hormones and they take a toll on our health. Exposure to them has been linked with thyroid disease, stunted development, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and even reduced vaccine effectiveness, which feels especially relevant these days. So these chemicals don’t just repel stains and water and grease, they should repel us, too.
Monica Kumar: Thank you, Dr. Anna Young, for calling out some serious relationship red flags. I mean, lack of testing, lack of consent, and they won’t take no for an answer.
Erika Eitland: It’s really scary, Monica. I mean, those hormone-disrupting chemicals Dr. Young mentioned actually block your hormones from doing their normal job.
Monica Kumar: Mmm.
Erika Eitland: You may be familiar with BPA in plastic bottles. That’s part of a class of hormone-disrupting chemicals called bisphenols that is actually found in resin countertops, paints, and other building materials.
Monica Kumar: And at this point, you Inhabit listeners might be asking yourselves, Well shoot, what other toxic chemical relationships do I have to watch out for? The hard truth is we don’t exactly know. Today, the American Chemical Society registers 50 million unique natural and manmade chemicals, the vast majority of which were discovered in the postwar era and lack publicly available risk data.
Erika Eitland: Aaaah. As a public healther, when I hear “50 million unique chemicals,” I think chronic cumulative exposures, with us at the center of this crazy experiment.
Monica Kumar: The good news is that scientists have identified some major chemical groups, like bisphenols, that we know should be avoided based on the “precautionary principle,” which basically means if they’re likely to cause harm, we should proceed with caution. Seems totally reasonable.
Erika Eitland: Seems good.
Monica Kumar: Yeah. Checks out. So in our show notes, you can find out which groups those are and how to start avoiding them.
Erika Eitland: That 50 million may seem a little overwhelming.
[“Head over Heels” bass and melody cue in.]
Erika Eitland: So we’re gonna focus on one group of chemicals. It’s one of our most intimate relationships: perfluoroalkyl substances, lovingly known as PFAS.
Monica Kumar: OK I see you, PFAS. [laughs] Out of our thousands of relationships with chemicals, why are we focusing on this one?
Erika Eitland: It’s ‘cause we’re head over heels in love with PFAS!
Monica Kumar: OK.
Erika Eitland: And anyone we spend this much time with better be good to us. We use them as coatings on our roofs, as ingredients in our wall paint, sealants on our countertops and tiles, coatings on our hardwood, and most extensively as stain repellents on carpets furniture, upholstery, curtains, and even bedding. We are literally sleeping with PFAS.
Monica Kumar: Wow, no kidding. That’s practically every surface in our home. To add to that, I actually read that PFAS is
[“Head over Heels” drops out.]
Monica Kumar: in firefighting foams, rain jackets, food packaging, cosmetics. That’s the stuff we wear and eat. I’m starting to see your point, Erika, we are really invested in this relationship.
Erika Eitland: Oh, yes, we are. And to dive deeper, we invited gal pal Dr. Xindi Hu, lead data scientist at Mathematica, whose research focuses on human exposure to PFAS-contaminated drinking water. Here’s Dr. Hu to give us three quick stats on PFAS.
[Quick ascending magic harp twinkles.]
Dr. Xindi Hu: The first one is a duration, like millennial, or thousands of years. That’s how long it takes for PFAS to naturally degrade in our normal environment, like under normal temperature and pressure, which is why they’re called “forever chemicals,” right, because they are essentially just there. Once we release them into the environment, it doesn’t go away unless it is very extreme conditions.
[Quick glockenspiel trill.]
Dr. Xindi Hu: The second number is 4,000. That’s the number of unique compounds in the PFAS family. One thing many people don’t realize is PFAS is not one chemical. It’s a family of many, many different types of chemicals. So as we study the health effects of a handful, there are still many more to be studied and investigated and understood. So the scale of the problem could be much bigger than what we currently understand.
[Quick glockenspiel trill.]
Dr. Xindi Hu: And the last stat is 98 percent. That’s the probability of finding PFAS in an average AmErikan’s blood. If you’re going to, like, just go on the street and sample 100 people randomly, draw their blood, in 98 out of 100 people, you’re going to find PFAS in their blood.
Monica Kumar: OK, Dr. Hu breaks it down. PFAS is everywhere. It lasts forever. And it’s toxic.
[Campy horror-movie organ sounds.]
Erika Eitland: And you know what that 98 percent means? Inhabit listeners, this toxic relationship with PFAS is most likely affecting you right now.
Monica Kumar: All right, now if you’re asking yourself, How did we get here?
Erika Eitland: Oh, baby! “History in 5 Key Dates”! My favorite segment!
Monica Kumar: Yeah, settle on in. This is a journey.
[Romantic song “The Day Our Eyes Met,” Medité / Epidemic Sound cues up]
I’ll start with a trigger warning. These dates feature some pretty toxic behavior: secrecy gaslighting, you get the picture. So our first date is 1946, the “meet cute” of our love story, if you will. World War II has just ended, and industrial manufacturers need a new revenue stream. Enter Dreamboat, the chemical giant DuPont, who promises performance, domestic bliss, and modern convenience. Who wouldn’t want that? They invent a PFAS chemical—Teflon—a slippery nonstick substance. During World War II, Teflon was used to line the inside chambers of the atomic bomb.
Erika Eitland: And now it casually lines or frying pans?
Monica Kumar: Exactly. That’s the point. So DuPont creates nonstick pans and starts a mass-marketing campaign filled with frustrated home cooks who couldn’t imagine their life without this nonstick. It was love at first sight.
Erika Eitland: Well, this escalated quickly.
Monica Kumar: Oh, Erika. We walked right down that aisle without a background check—because safety testing wasn’t required for chemicals at this time.
Erika Eitland: Hmm.
Monica Kumar: So Erika—
[“The Day Our Eyes Met” fades out and “Head over Heels” fades in.]
Monica Kumar: Let’s get glammed up for our second key date in this story: 1950. Just four years after Teflon start lining our frying pans, industry scientists discover that PFAS—Teflon—accumulates in the blood of mice. And pretty soon after that, of course, we have evidence that it accumulates in human blood, too.
Erika Eitland: Ah, jeez.
Monica Kumar: Yeah, exactly. Because it turns out, PFAS does not break down in the environment or in our bodies.
Dr. Erika Eitland: As Dr. Hu said, these are forever chemicals.
Monica Kumar: Yes, forever. So over the next 20 years, several studies from industry scientists confirmed the toxicity of PFAS, but these studies never get shared with the public. And meanwhile, the PFAS industry keeps growing.
Dr. Erika Eitland: So let me get this straight: These companies are hiding evidence that PFAS is toxic while they continue to find new ways to get it into our homes and schools? Because it’s not just in our frying pans, right? Don’t our laws protect us from this kind of thing?
Monica Kumar: A reasonable question. And I think we all know the answer: They don’t. Or they didn’t until the problem became too big to ignore. PFAS isn’t our only bad chemical relationship, and throughout the ’60s and ’70s, several public incidents of chemical poisoning finally catch the government’s attention. So you asked about laws protecting us? That brings us to our third key date:
[“Head over Heels” fades out. “Sunshine in My Pocket” by Trailer Worx / Epidemic Sound fades in.]
Monica Kumar: October 11, 1976. So that’s the day President Gerald Ford signs into action our very first comprehensive chemical safety policy. It’s called the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSAC [pronounced “tosca”]. And it’s supposed to establish safety and testing requirements for all these new chemicals that are hitting the market. But—surprise, surprise—it lacks teeth. To make long story short, TSCA creates a de facto honor system: Chemicals are assumed to be safe, and manufacturers are asked to voluntarily report any risks to EPA. Very few companies did.
Erika Eitland: Now, hold up, hold up. An honor system? We’re talking about cancer, organ damage and polluted waterways! The European equivalent of TSCA takes a more precautionary atance. Their chemical regulation is called REACH, and it asks manufacturers to demonstrate safety before the chemicals can hit the market. But this is not a Parisian love story. It’s an American one. Go on, Monica.
[“Sunshine in My Pocket” fades out. “Evanescent Doubt” by Leimoti / Epidemic Sound fades in.]
Monica Kumar: Too right you are, Erika. We’re in the United States, home to the majority of the world’s chemical giants. Things are a little different here. So it’s 1976. We’ve passed this voluntary chemical safety law. Meanwhile, more DuPont studies are piling up, including in their own words, that PFAS is, quote, “highly toxic,” end quote. But they’re still selling it. So this brings us to our fourth date, 1998, or, as I like to call it, Caught in the Act.
Erika Eitland: Oh, baby.
Monica Kumar: In a story so crazy that Hollywood made a movie about it—it’s called Dark Waters, check it out—a lawyer named Rob Bilott helps a West Virginia cattle farmer sue DuPont for disposing of over 7,000 tons of its toxic PFAS waste in a landfill by his cattle farm. And it’s because of this lawsuit that the public now has access to all of the scientific studies showing Teflon’s toxicity.
Erika Eitland: Literally, holy cow—the man’s a cattle farmer.
Monica Kumar: [laughs]
Erika Eitland: But why does it always take a lawsuit to get the truth? I mean, Monica, no more lies or cover ups, though. Give me some good news.
Monica Kumar: That’s a tall order in this story, Erika. It’s not exactly good news, but we do learn to stand up for ourselves.
[“Evanescent Doubt” fades out.]
Erika Eitland: OK.
Monica Kumar: Our fifth and final date in this story for now—
[“Damned if We Do” (Instrumental Version) by Maybe / Epidemic Sound cues in.]
Monica Kumar: —is 2006, the year one group of intrepid healthcare designers at a firm called Guenther 5 started asking uncomfortable questions about the contents of the building products they worked with. The catch was, they had no way to answer these questions because at that time, building products had virtually no ingredient lists.
Erika Eitland: So like a nutrition label, right? I can only cut back on my sugar intake if I flip over my yoghurt and see that ingredients list.
Monica Kumar: Exactly, Erika. How can you choose a nontoxic product if you don’t know the ingredients? So the designers at Guenther 5 started researching suspicious chemicals in building products and making a list of known toxicants to guide their product selections. Guenther 5 merged with Perkins&Will in 2007, and that work forms the basis of Perkins&Will’s award-winning Transparency Website and Precautionary List. Today, it’s a tool that helps designers make healthier selections. Bonus: Later in the episode, we’ll hear from Robin Guenther, as in THE Guenther, from Guenther 5 Architects.
Robin Guenther: As soon as you realize that all these negative impacts are really choices that we make as designers, you quickly realize that we can know better and we can choose differently.
Erika Eitland: It’s encouraging to see a case where industry moves faster than policy. But here’s the problem I’m wrestling with: The damage was done.
[Music pauses then comes back in.]
Erika Eitland: Even if we completely ban PFAS use today, it doesn’t remove the stuff that’s already in our bodies and water. This is an equity issue. Studies have found that Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities are disproportionately exposed to PFAS from drinking-water contamination to fast-food packaging and other countless sources.
Monica Kumar: Yes. Our work isn’t over yet. Toxic substances are still making their way into our building products. So why is breaking up with bad chemicals so damn hard? The answer, as usual, lies in the fault lines between design, policy, and research. Our PFAS love story shows how products in our buildings can unintentionally cause harm even when they’re trying to add performance benefits. And we stayed in this toxic relationship because policy failed to act on the science and put public health first.
Erika Eitland: There’s a lot to think about here. Thanks, Monica, for sharing this history in five key dates.
[Music pauses and comes back in.]
Erika Eitland: But this isn’t just history. It’s estimated that on average, a new chemical substance is either isolated or synthesized globally every 2.6 seconds. History is happening right now.
Monica Kumar: OK, so here we are, cards on the table. We need these chemicals. So where do we start?
Erika Eitland: With simple actions informed by our love languages, of course:
[“It’s Not Me” by Arthur Benson cues in.]
Erika Eitland: policy, design, and research. My love language is research. I am thirsty for the facts, and I’m all about naming the problem. You can’t change what you don’t know! So get tested. Get your urine tested!—by using Silent Spring Institute’s Detox Me Action Kit. You just freeze your pee, send it through the U.S. Postal Service, and Silent Spring tells you about 10 of the most common household chemicals that can accumulate in your body.
Monica Kumar: But you don’t have to spend any money to find out what you’ve been exposed to. You can start practicing informed consent with the chemicals in your life. Flip over your office chair or even a sofa cushion. Does it have a label that says “Technical Bulletin 117”? Furniture made from 1975 to 2014 may have a TP 117 label and almost certainly contains flame-retardant chemicals.
Erika Eitland: OK, Monica, so we identified what’s in our body, but what next?
Monica Kumar: Love Language No. 2: Design. You can start to use a precautionary approach that can help you pick better materials for your home. We recommend Home Free: it’s an easy-to use product purchasing guide that helps you find healthier flooring, paint, insulation, you name it … building materials.
Erika Eitland: Love Language No. 3: Policy. Our PFAS love story is still being written. In 2016, Congress passed a much-needed update to TSCA. It increased the burden of proof and the standard of safety. In 2021, the House of Representatives passed the PFAS Action Act, which designates the chemical as hazardous and would require drinking water limits, but the bill is being held up in the Senate.
Monica Kumar: Here’s where you come in. You can support the cause by writing to your senator right now and tell them that you’d like to see action on this bill. In our show notes, we’ve provided a one-click link to an Environmental Working Group petition that you can sign in less than five minutes. And we know action on PFAS is possible because Europe will officially ban the entire PFAS class of chemicals in 2022.
[“It’s Not Me” ends.]
Erika Eitland: Monica, I think it’s time to get specific about change. Who are the power players to help us create toxic-free built environments faster?
Monica Kumar: Erika, if there’s one thing I do know, we can’t answer this question alone. So we want to share part of a conversation we had with two fierce women who think designers have a part to play. Alison Mears and Jonsara Ruth, the co-directors of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design. We think they’re really on to something. They collaborate with people at every stage in the design and construction process to find ways to integrate healthier building products into their practice. What makes them so special as a design research lab is that they are specifically looking for action and change. Not only do these two women run the Lab, but they’re also professors at top design schools, and they run their own design studios. And from their position in the Parsons School of Design, they make education central to the change they’re putting into practice.
Erika Eitland: In the height of the lockdown, they invited us into their virtual homes for the dirty on clean building products.
Monica Kumar: First, you’ll hear Jonsara reflecting on what designers bring to the table next to scientists and strategists in the world of research. Then Alison drops some knowledge about who has power in the built environment. We talk about the total cost of our decisions and how changing one building product in the New York City Housing Authority can have a huge impact. Take a listen.
Jonsara Ruth: Coming into this as a collaborative grant, they were looking at us and saying, “What are you gonna do? You’re a design school.” And you know, you know, that was a provocation for us to say, Yeah, what is our role? What is design’s role? I think bringing our long training as designers and architects, where we know that imagination is powerful and we know that strategy is powerful, one of the things that we came to is translation. Design as a, as a discipline is a translator of all kinds of things. You know, we know that as a designer of the built world, we translate big ideas into the built world. But we can also translate very complex ideas into very accessible information.
Erika Eitland: Your mission statement hits it just so beautifully. “We’re dedicated to a world in which people’s health is placed at the center of all design decisions.” For me, the question as the public healther is, Well, what was at the center of those design decisions from the beginning? And I’m curious, you know, what are those barriers that we’re kind of fighting so that health can have the most important place there?
Alison Mears: Everything, right? In building, when you think about construction, you think about who makes choices when you first conceive of a project. So you have a developer or potential owner who brings money and power and prestige to the project. They bring, you know, control of the land to the project. Often people like us are hired to help facilitate that process so the central kind of, the power players in that construction process are the developer, the potential owner, the financial entities that are supporting the building of that project. You know and the potential users or, in our case, the future residents of buildings, are very secondary to that conversation.
I would say that since COVID, and since people now understand what public health means, there is a spotlight on these public health issues like, you know, the transmission of viruses and to the health of all of us. And so it used to be very difficult, I think, for us to make that relationship between the work that we did and public health. I mean, we did— We thought we made it fairly well. But I think it didn’t really register with people in the way that it does now, where we all see how vulnerable we are, and how we’re all conscious that we need to make healthier places for us all.
Jonsara Ruth: Now I would love to turn the tables, Erika, and hear what you think about COVID and public health and the built environment.
Erika Eitland: I’m like getting all, like, jazzed up over here. You know what, I think there was a Healthy Buildings Movement for a long time. And yet this is like our public health moment to make sure that the Healthy Buildings Movement is truly successful. Hopefully, we’re not myopic, we don’t just treat it as COVID. But we say, What about a world where the materials that we’re selecting are not just for the few. How do we make sure that this movement is actually the equitable part of this process now?
Alison Mears: Well, so that’s the kernel of what we do. That’s why the affordable housing piece is so important for us. I would just say that we talk a lot about planetary and human health. And we make that connection between the work that we do—all the decisions we make when we specify and install a product in terms of its lifecycle, the implications at every point of that lifecycle. To your point about cost, which is always the really interesting thing, right? What is the cost of producing polyvinyl chloride? What is the total cost of producing that product? It can be a very cheap alternative as a floor tile in a house—the cheapest, potentially—and yet it’s entire lifecycle cost is really profound in terms of the amount of human disease that is triggered by the phthalates in that flooring, by the vinyl production in the factory to the fenceline communities across the street from it. So the question of cost is absolutely critical in construction. And we do have lots of alternatives that we’ve considered that are affordable. But I think we need to talk about total cost. We can’t default to some 20th-century, you know, version of how much something costs in terms of its sticker price.
Monica Kumar: I remember Alison had told me about an example of getting NYCHA to move some of their paint specs. Are you able to speak a little bit about that experience and who needed to be at the table?
Alison Mears: You know, that took a while. That was early on in the kind of process at the Lab, I think in our second year. We discovered that NYCHA was still specifying older paints, paints that had started being in production in the ’60s and ’70s—not lead-based paints, but really high-VOC [volatile organic compound] paints. And it kind of stuck with us through the launch at the Lab. And you know, and then we, we started to focus on these common building product categories like paint. And we reached out to NYCHA and said, You know, would you be interested in doing a project with us where we specify the paints for this project, we specify some palettes for you to use? And then we can test some of these paints we’ve been talking about to see if your painters, who are hired by NYCHA, are happy to work with these new paints? And so we went through that process. It’s actually on our website, Color and Health, all the little palettes that we came up with—tested the paints with their painters, who were up for it, very happy to have different paints that were less toxic to them. And through that kind of evidence-based process of, It’s possible, It can be beautiful, It can work, It can be in this quite, you know, tricky situation of early childhood where you’ve got kids and you have to be able to scrub down surfaces—so there was a performance piece of this—it helped them make a decision to transform their specifications for just ordinary paints. And if there’s one thing that they can do in NYCHA, they still can paint, even though they have limited budget. Yeah.
Erika Eitland: So even something as simple as changing to healthier paints is having a huge ripple effect, because being able to say, We can have slow and steady transformation in something like the biggest landlord in the country, is a big public health win—not just for the, the workers, but also for communities who are going to use those spaces over time.
Alison Mears: Yeah, I think there are 650,000 residents in the 170,000 units of housing at the New York City Housing Authority. So yeah, we were very happy with that.
Erika Eitland: Alison Mears and Jonsara Ruth are just highlighting the tip of the iceberg. 650,000 people breathing cleaner air!
Monica Kumar: That’s right. I also love that Alison called out the healthy buildings moment that we’re currently in. See, Inhabit listeners? This is a real thing! We have such a compelling window for change. So are we saying designers alone have the power to break up with chemicals? Nnno. In fact, most buildings in America get built without the involvement of an architect or designer—
Erika Eitland: What we are saying is the decisions architects and designers make do matter.
Monica Kumar: We’re going to wrap today’s episode with a little more tough love.
Erika Eitland: For this one, we brought in a heavy hitter: industry veteran Robin Guenther.
Monica Kumar: See, we’re stuck in a cycle of misinformation and misguided priorities that are getting in the way of healthier bodies. So we asked Robin to give us her top three calls to action for each one of our love languages.
[Ascending magical harp sounds.]
Robin Guenther: I am Robin Guenther. I am a practicing architect. I never go anywhere except as an architect, and I have been working on a career that balances environmental advocacy and practice for about 25 years.
My tough love for designers is, Choose differently. That’s it.
The researchers need to focus on routes of exposure in the built environment, and they have to focus on this central question of, Are we approaching a tipping point in chemical toxicity just as we have passed a tipping point on climate, because that would send a shockwave through society that I’d love to live to see—bottom line.
Policymakers: precautionary principle.
[“Corny Old Love Song” by Franz Gordon / Epidemic Sound fades in.]
There is enough evidence in the environment and in human health to begin to take action on chemicals policy.
Monica Kumar: Robin, this is why I love talking to you. You have a way of getting straight to the heart of the issue. Wow. I think if we follow your lead, we will finally be putting people over profit.
[Quick ascending harp sound.]
What gals really hate:
Higher pre-term birth rates,
Chemicals that affect our weight …
Let’s start on a clean slate,
Create an environment where we want to date
and healthier ways to quicken our heart rate.
Erika Eitland: Healthy materials are just one piece of the Healthy Buildings Movement, but they’re essential because they make up something even more fundamental: clean air. On the next episode, we’re taking on indoor air quality through the lens of our children and schools.
[Music gets louder.]
Inhabit is a production of Perkins&Will. I’m Erika Eitland.
Monica Kumar: And I’m Monica Kumar. Check out our show page at inhabit.perkinswill.com for the show notes, music, and links to all the resources and references we mentioned. Follow us on Insta @perkinswill.
Erika Eitland: Lauren Neefe is our executive producer and edits the show. Anna Wissler is our art director and assistant producer. Mixing and sound editing by Threaded Films. Music courtesy of Epidemic Sound. And shout out to Julio Brenes for the illustrations you see on our website.
Monica Kumar: Special thanks to Dr. Anna Young, Dr. Xindi Hu, Robin Guenther, and our special guests, Jonsara Ruth and Alison Mears, for coming on the show. Thank you to our advisory board, Casey Jones, Angela Miller, Pat Bosch, Yehia Madkour, Kimberly Seigel, and Rachel Rose.
Erika Eitland: Finally, a heartfelt thank-you to the health materials poets and advocates, who make our lives healthier every single day.
Perkins&Will Chorus: Uhhhh, people, first and foremost. Places. Power. Design. Change. Now.
[Snap echoes into an empty room]
Lauren Neefe: … and all your regrettable per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance substitutes? I do not love you. I do not love you. I do not love you. I do not love you. I do not love you …
[“Corny Old Love Song” fades out.]