Is Your Office Giving You Cancer?
August 29th, 2012 by Holly Cornish
The typical office environment in corporate America is furnished with items made to resist wear and tear and to be more stain-proof than the textiles we use in our homes. This is all accomplished with chemicals. No, they aren’t good for you. But how bad are they? Let’s take a look…
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The furniture and carpets are coated with stain repellents and other synthetic materials. Except for maybe the boss’s office, the furniture is made of cheap composite materials, not real wood. The walls are doused with paints that give off toxic gases — and the whole airborne nightmare is sealed in with windows that don’t open and thick insulation to make the building energy-efficient.
Some call the whole thing a miracle of modern chemistry and industrial design. But the “miracle” secretes enough toxins in the form of PFCs to make you sick with a host of illnesses — cancer being one of them.
PFCs are polyfluorinated compounds. One of the scariest things about them is that they last a long time, and they accumulate in the body rather than being flushed out. They never go away.
And they’re found throughout the man-made environment. Dr. Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, said it best: “This class of chemicals, they are all over the place.”
We already know somewhere between 95 percent and 99 percent of people in the U.S. have traces of PFCs in their blood. I touched on this a few weeks ago in my Teflon update (Issue #211).
PFOA, the contaminant in Teflon, is only one of the many terminal breakdown compounds of household products containing PFCs. It’s also just one of the 15 PFCs known to pollute human blood.
How your office links with your blood
Curiosity about this health pollutant prompted a recent study, published in Environmental Science & Technology. Lead researcher Michael McClean, associate professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, along with his colleagues, looked at the prevalence of PFCs in office environments.
The team sampled 31 offices in Boston over the course of four days. The offices were located in two separate buildings — one that was fairly new, and another building that was older but had new carpeting. The researchers tested for a variety of PFCs, including fluorotelomer alcohols (FTOHs), sulfonamides (FOSAs), and sulfonamidoethanols (FOSEs).
Following that, they sampled the blood of each of the 31 workers from those offices, looking for any of 12 PFCs. They restricted the study to workers who had to spend at least 18 hours a week in their offices.
The results give me chills. For one, FTOHs were particularly high in air samples — and three to five times higher than those found in most homes. In the office workers’ blood levels, PFOA, which is a breakdown product of FTOHs, correlated with office air levels of FTOHs.
The researchers found that the range of PFC levels varies quite a bit from one building to another. Meaning, the corresponding blood levels of PFCs depend on the building where the person works. The newer building was by far a greater source of toxins, with its new paint, furniture, and carpet.
No surprise, those who work in older buildings without the chemically-coated new furniture and carpet have the lowest levels of PFCs.
Damage from PFCs is appalling
Every month, it seems like some new illness gets linked with PFC exposure.
Some of the research points to low birth weight and high cholesterol. Other studies suggest that vaccines for kids are less effective due to PFC exposure. Animal studies show PFCs weaken the immune system. And other health effects, besides cancer, include developmental and reproductive toxicity.
According to the Environmental Working Group, “PFCs seem destined to supplant DDT, PCBs, dioxin, and other chemicals as the most notorious global chemical contaminants ever produced.”
This puts you in a tough spot if you — like most of us — want to keep your job, whether it’s because you love it or need it.
But there are some things you can do to lessen your exposure.
A few things you can do to stay healthy
For one thing, officials need to acknowledge that office air is a significant source of exposure for disease-creating chemicals. Indoor air is two to five times more polluted than outdoor air (in some cases, 100 times more polluted).
If you have any pull in deciding how to outfit your office, consult a resource like the GreenGuard Environmental Institute. They provide indoor air quality certification for certain products, and they’re not affiliated with any of the manufacturers they certify.
Another good source is CenterPoint Energy’s Indoor Air Quality quiz. Take it to find out if your facility has “sick building syndrome.” And then read their tips on what to do about it.
Other tips for creating a healthy indoor space are:
- Use only non-toxic paint.
- Make sure there’s adequate air ventilation to prevent mold growth and allow escape for airborne toxins. Most ventilation systems bring in very little outdoor air and simply re-circulate indoor air, which further reduces quality.
- Make windows accessible. Too many office buildings have their windows sealed shut.
- Use furnishings that are low in VOCs (VOCs are volatile organic compounds, meaning they escape into the air as gases).
- Consider eco-flooring materials, like cork. It’s especially important to stay away from carpeting with stain repellents, because the PFCs that come with them stick around for a long time.
- Require cleaning crews to use non-toxic, natural cleaning supplies, like vinegar and baking soda
- Don’t import, if you can help it. Otherwise you risk bringing in products with the same compounds you’re trying to avoid. PFC levels in China are going up, for instance.
- Ask to telecommute from your home a few days a week … or all the time.
Most importantly, read up on this stuff. You can bet big-money companies like DuPont aren’t going to write “Caution: May cause cancer” on their flooring labels.
In fact, in an email reply to health inquiries by WebMD, DuPont spokeswoman Janet Smith said, “The term ‘PFCs’ is rather a broad umbrella, grouping together chemicals that have different properties and applications, and different toxicity and environmental profiles. These chemicals should be considered individually when discussing questions about health and safety.”
Funny. That’s exactly what McClean did in his Boston office-space study.
Don’t wait around for the government to take action
It’s a sign of the times that more research these days focuses on the health hazards of chemicals. More chemicals flood our world than ever, and more people are getting sick.
Some of the PFC class of chemicals are being phased out, like those found in Scotchgard stain and water repellent. Those were forced off the market by the EPA in 2000, and PFOA is on its way out (we hope, anyway, assuming DuPont cooperates).
But the federal government has been far too slow to acknowledge the hazards of PFCs. They usually just respond with a call for more research, or for voluntary agreements with manufacturers. Given the persistence of these chemicals in our environment, our chance to reverse their impact may be slipping away — at least, if you’re waiting for science to do something about it.
Don’t bank on regulation any time soon. Take responsibility and do what you can to make sure your daily environment isn’t slowly poisoning you.
Lee Euler, Publisher