When it comes to human and environmental health, there are few perfect products. It’s hard to name the “best” or the “healthiest” building products. Usually the best we can do is identify healthier products. There are almost always trade-offs.
These are especially apparent when evaluating synthetic, high-performance products such as carpeting, and when addressing environmental health hazards whose impact extends beyond current building occupants, by taking into account impacts on any people who might come into contact with a product throughout its life cycle – production, installation, and end-of-life recycling/disposal. Which brings us to the competing claims of carpet manufacturers regarding PVC (carpet backing) and PFAS (stain repellent applied to fibers).
“PFAS” (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a workhorse class of chemicals with a variety of brand names that stop liquids from absorbing where you don’t want them to – red wine on your carpet (Scotchgard), water on your rain jacket (Gore-Tex), even eggs on your frying pan (Teflon).1 They have been used since the 1940s,2 but scientists have only been able to accurately measure them for about 15 years.3
PFAS are nasty.4 They virtually never break down in the environment and are found in people, fish, and wildlife all over the world, with no realistic solution in sight. Dr. Joseph Allen, Director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard University School of Public Health dubbed them “forever chemicals,” “a group of toxic chemicals that may be associated with testicular cancer, kidney cancer, high cholesterol and suppression of vaccine effectiveness in children.”5 They are released by our consumer products, including carpets, bit by bit, through ordinary wear and tear. They make their way into our bodies and household dust. They are washed down the drain, contaminating wastewater and related biosolids used as compost. They are released to surface water and groundwater from the industrial facilities that manufacture and use them.
PFAS contamination of drinking water is a growing national crisis. DuPont (maker of Teflon) paid $370 million in 2017 to settle a water contamination lawsuit in West Virginia, and in 2018, 3M Company (maker of Scotchgard) settled a suit filed by the Minnesota Attorney General for $850 million.6
Last month, Interface, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tiles, issued an important statement on PFAS, asserted that avoiding “forever chemicals” “should be the first priority when selecting carpet,” and noting that it began transitioning its carpet tiles to be free of PFAS coatings as early as 2010.7 That was an act of true industry leadership, for which the company deserves due credit. The company also cried foul about loopholes in the Living Building Challenge “Red List” and Cradle to Cradle product certifications that allow continued PFAS use, which unfairly disadvantages Interface’s PFAS-free products. Echoing HBN’s own priorities, the company urged consumers to request and rely upon HPDs to fully understand product content, warning that its competitors offer PFAS-free options, but unlike Interface have not eliminated PFAS coatings entirely, noting “It’s important to hold manufacturers accountable for the claims they make about ‘healthy” products.”
Unfortunately, in the same article, Interface took a misplaced jab at those who manufacture or specify “PVC-free.” It dubbed as Myth #1:“‘PVC-Free’ is the number one thing to look for in carpet.”
But here’s the thing. Most PVC today, 84% globally, is made using PFAS, while the remainder is made using mercury- or asbestos-based processes, “forever chemicals” in their own right.
How do we know this? The HBN research team just released Phase 2 of our Global Inventory of Chlorine Production (Asia), a sweeping research project funded in part by PVC product manufacturers, including Interface, who are interested in learning more about their supply chains. Interface’s support for independent, transparent research is, again, laudable. However, its failure to note that PVC products are implicated in the global PFAS-contamination crisis it decries is a serious omission. The company, which had distinguished itself from many of its competitors by not selling PVC-based Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT), introduced its first LVT line in 2017,8 7 years after it took a leadership position in addressing the PFAS threat from carpet.
To ignore PVC’s role in global PFAS contamination is to cast a blind eye to the equity and environmental justice implications of the global PFAS contamination dilemma, from PVC fence-line communities along the US Gulf Coast, to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. In Asia, where most of the chlorine for all LVT products is sourced,9 HBN estimates that 94% of all chlorine comes from PFAS technology.
PFAS are forever, whether they are applied to carpet fibers by Interface’s competitors, or to the machinery that Interface itself relies upon to make PVC for its carpet backing and, in much higher volumes, for its Luxury Vinyl flooring,
Interface is right about PFAS, wrong on PVC. If you want to eliminate global PFAS contamination, going PVC-free is part of the solution.
Single-attribute claims are not a sound basis for product selection, whether they be “PFAS-free” or “PVC-free.” The building industry needs full disclosure and hazard assessment of product contents using the HPD in order to understand and address the upstream and downstream impacts of all materials. For example, chlorine is also a feedstock for epoxies (used in flooring adhesives) and for polyurethane (used in carpet backing). Alternatives that are thought to be safer need similar scrutiny before they can be considered a healthier choice.
The good news is the availability of carpets that are both PFAS-free and PVC-free. Last year, the San Francisco Department of the Environment released a new regulation that set minimum requirements for environmentally preferable carpet that is purchased for use in city construction projects. These requirements, which are in close alignment with the recommendations in HBN’s 2017 carpet report, include restrictions on PVC, PFAS, and other hazards, such as fly ash. San Francisco has also helpfully published a list of carpets that meet its requirements. These are not perfect10, but when it comes to avoiding both PFAS and PVC in carpets, asking for full disclosure and asking for full assessment of alternatives, you can take a step towards a healthier product.
 Scotchguard and Teflon are still sold using new formulations of PFAS, moving from one formulation to another, less well-studied chemical in this class. (GoreTex is in the midst of a transition). Independent experts believe these new formulations present similar levels of hazard, and do not consider them a safe substitute. See, e.g.: https://greensciencepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Myths-vs.-Facts-June-2018.pdf
 https://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/interface-introduces-vinyl-flooring-what-would-ray-say.html Currently Shaw is the largest U.S. supplier of LVT, accounting for 34% of share. Other suppliers, in order of percentage of capacity, include IVC/Mohawk at 12%, Mannington at 9%, Armstrong at 4%, Nox at 2% and both Congoleum and Tarkett at 1%. The remaining 36% is shared among other players.
 https://www.floordaily.net/flooring-news/shaws-baucom-requests-chinesetariff-relief-on-lvt-before-ustr. Interface LVT is sourced from Korea. https://www.floorcoveringweekly.com/main/newsletters/interface-adds-lvt-to-carpet-tile-for-total-flooring-options-16351
 See HBN’s discussion of the limitations of the San Francisco regulations: https://healthybuilding.net/blog/234-california-steps-toward-healthier-carpet