You may not have heard of the chemical PFAS, but you probably touched it at some point today. It’s a man-made chemical in tons of products in our homes, like nonstick pans and food packaging. But it’s toxic. And in at least one preschool in Berkeley, it’s in the carpets.
It’s naptime at Step One preschool in Berkeley. The curtains are drawn, the toys tucked away in their cubbies. Ten toddlers curl up on cots arranged on a big fluffy green carpet.
“We’ll come back when they’re more asleep,” whispers Sue Britson, Step One’s director and cofounder. She says that every good preschool needs a good carpet: for nap time, for story time, and to roll around and play on.
“We want the cots to be on the carpets rather than the bare floor,” she says. “It’s warmer and cozier when they’re taking their shoes and socks off.”
Last year Britson found out that some of the warmest and coziest carpets were contaminated with toxic chemicals.
“Lots of publications come out every year telling people these are the seven things you should look for in a good preschool program. I don’t get a lot of questions about the carpets,” Briston says.
That is, until she volunteered the preschool for a study. In 2017 a Berkeley-based research institute tested eighteen East Bay preschools for something called PFAS, a class of chemicals used as a stain resistant in carpets.
But research shows they’re toxic: long-term exposure increases risk of cancer and other diseases. And kids’ developing bodies are especially vulnerable.
The East Bay study found that about half of Step One preschool’s carpets were manufactured with PFAS.
“I thought about ‘Hm, do parents know about this?’” Britson says.
Britson says Step One parents can afford the best: the preschool has organic snacks and non-toxic cleaning products. But before the study, she says, most parents had never heard of PFAS.
That includes Raja Antony. I visit his North Berkeley home just blocks from the preschool.
“At first I was kind of very surprised. In a way that, oh, there was something new about the carpets which is basically almost everywhere,” Antony says.
Antony has a three year old daughter at Step One. When he heard about the study, he didn’t only have the preschool to worry about.
“As you can see, there are Persian carpets everywhere in my house. I’m not going to throw them away, unless there is good reason for it,” Antony says.
Antony and his wife are careful to buy non-toxic products, but he hasn’t heard much on the news about PFAS in carpets, and he says he has to choose his battles.
“There is so much doubt and information that as a parent you have to tune out. Because as a parent you don’t want to be paranoid about it. Because you have enough things to be paranoid about, that you don’t need to think about all of the studies that are coming out. So that’s where we stop,” says Antony.
Antony needs the alarm bells to be a little louder before he makes a major change. “So right now I’m in a mode where I’m gonna ignore it for now. If it is significant enough, I’m sure I’ll know about it,” he says.
PFAS aren’t on a lot of our radars, but they’re in most of our homes. They’ve been used in tons of products since the forties, when DuPont first invented them. Back in the fifties, Larry Livingston of the DuPont Company appeared in a commercial for an exciting new product: Teflon.
“It is really a tough guy among plastics. Someday, you ladies may have a lot of things coated in Teflon enamel,” he says.
Livingston was right. Teflon took off. And DuPont figured out that the chemicals they use to make Teflon aren’t just nonstick – they have stain-resisting, waterproofing, even firefighting powers. Today PFAS chemicals are in hundreds of products, from food packaging to firefighting foam.
They drain off of landfills and industrial sites, into our drinking water, and enter our bodies. The US Centers for Disease Control estimate that almost every American has some levels of PFAS in their blood.
At low levels, that’s okay, but If we’re exposed to high enough levels, PFAS are extremely toxic. So why haven’t so many of us heard of PFAS? I go to Clean Water Action in downtown Oakland to ask Andria Ventura.
“These are the ones you don’t know about, but you need to,” Ventura says.
Ventura is the organization’s Toxics Program Manager, and she has a certain admiration for the strong chemical bonds that make PFAS so good at repelling water, grease and fire.
“These chemicals are kind of wonder chemicals to be honest with you. Because that bond makes materials that you use them in very tight. The problem with that is that that bond doesn’t break down,” she says.
PFAS aren’t just toxic. They tend to stick around forever.
“They’re persistent. They will not go away for thousands of years if at all,” Ventura says.
Whatever we dump, we’re stuck with. And it’s traveling through water, air, and soil across the globe.
“Polar bears have been found to have PFAS in their bodie, and polar bears are not eating off of Teflon pans or eating food packaging,” Ventura says.
To this day, PFAS are not consistently regulated federally or by the state of California. Andria Ventura says her team at Clean Water Action have been working with policymakers trying to get them to agree on some laws.
In the meantime, Step One Preschool’s Sue Britson has just kind of been guessing about her carpets. She says last year she replaced the toxic carpets with wool ones.
“If a carpet is wool, we assume it’s safe, but if it’s not how can we tell if it has these chemicals or not?” Britson says.
Britson can’t be sure if the new carpets are any better. When naptime’s over, and the kids wake up, there are tons of other things to worry about. She rattles off just a few of them: cleaning products, food, earthquakes, wildfires...
“So the list goes on and on,” she says.
The next time Britson buys carpets, PFAS won’t be one of those worries: a new bill effective this year will ban sales of PFAS-treated carpets statewide.
But carpets are just one way PFAS end up in our homes. For all of the other uses––like pans and food packaging––lawmakers are taking it one industry at a time. For a substance that can stick around forever, these battles may continue for a long time to come.