PFAS in Building Materials: Understanding “Forever Chemicals” and Their Alternatives

By Naomi Smith, Design Intern

Naomi Smith joined Hennebery Eddy as a summer design intern from the Tulane University School of Architecture in New Orleans. Their intern research project focused on PFAS chemicals in building materials.

As part of the firm’s robust internship program, our summer interns each complete a research project that they present to the firm. In this multi-part series, our 2023 cohort shares their findings; see all the internship posts here.

As an undergraduate student at Tulane University, I stumbled across Hennebery Eddy through a career fair. Throughout the hiring process, I was impressed by the healthy studio environment and standard of communication, which has been reinforced during my summer here. I have learned so much about how a team operates at various stages throughout a project, from working on the project definition phase of an academic building renovation, to developing wall graphics for a community college building currently under construction. Within the firm’s internal graphics committee, I also helped develop a new monograph, expanding upon the graphic sensibilities I developed in school.

On the research side, I chose to examine how PFAS chemicals are used within the building industry, which aligns with Hennebery Eddy’s core principles surrounding sustainability. While PFAS are prevalent in our industry, understanding where and how they are used is the first step to finding safer alternatives.

PFAS “forever chemicals” and where they are found.

From alarming headlines to growing concerns among health and environmental experts, PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have become a subject of intense scrutiny. They provide desirable functions such as weatherproofing, corrosion prevention, and friction reduction — but their utility comes at a cost to health and the environment.

It’s a familiar story that has played out before. A hazardous chemical is widely used, its adverse health and environmental effects are revealed far after the fact, scientists and other concerned parties ring the alarm, and the substance-in-question finally garners federal attention — sometimes in the form of improved regulation or, more rarely, a full-stop ban. We are well within the litigation stage, with many researchers and consumers calling on industries and institutions to phase these chemicals out of their products, manufacturing processes, and general use, and instead pursue safer alternatives that serve similar functions.

The harmful chemical lifecycle.

PFAS are group of man-made chemicals used to make products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. Essentially, they are designed to make things slippery and resist breakdown, hence the term “forever chemicals.” The properties that make them useful — that they’re persistent and have one part of the molecule that really likes water and another part that does not — are also what makes them problematic as they bioaccumulate within the body and the environment. Potential health risks linked to PFAS exposure include increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of high blood-pressure, decreased vaccine response, and decreases in infant birth weights. These chemicals exist in many consumer products, from outdoor gear to cookware to food packaging, along with many building materials.

Potential health risks of PFAS exposure.

In building materials, PFAS chemicals are largely used within coatings that are resistant to heat/stain/oil/water, with varying degrees of success. In roofing, PFAS are used to resist weathering and prolong the useful life of a roof as well as to reflect solar radiation and keep building interiors cool. In glass panels, PFAS are used to increase durability and limit dust and debris buildup, which is useful in hard-to-access places such as facades and solar panels. On interior finishes such as carpets, rugs, and furniture, PFAS are used to impart those materials with water- and stain-resistant properties.

PFAS can make their way into our water, air, food, and indoor dust during the manufacturing, use, and disposal of building materials. Human exposure is generally limited to ingestion, inhalation, and skin transfer. When products are used on the interiors of buildings, exposure is mostly linked to the inhalation and ingestion of dust containing PFAS. On the exterior, PFAS moves from building products into our soil and water, affecting our food chains and drinking water sources.

How PFAS move from building materials into the environment during manufacture, installation, product use, and end-of-life processes.

When it comes to human and environmental health, there are few perfect products. It’s hard to name the “best” or the “healthiest” building materials. Usually, the best we can do is identify healthier products, and there are almost always trade-offs. In some cases, PFAS-free materials are already available in the marketplace. In other cases, demand for PFAS-free alternatives will send a signal to manufacturers that new solutions are needed.

As designers, we can:
  • Educate ourselves and our colleagues about the harmful chemicals in products we use. The short videos at are a good place to begin.
  • Request ingredient disclosure from manufacturers through material data sheets and declarations, such as Health Product Declarations (HPDs), Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), and Declare labels.
  • Ask ourselves, “Is this product feature necessary, given the potential for harm?”
  • Use the Mindful Materials database and similar resources to find and vet products that meet better health criteria.
  • Stay up-to-date on emerging research through resources such as PFAS Central and advocate for better regulations.

Ultimately, the design and building industry has the economic power and technical expertise to help move the market away from PFAS for the benefit of all.



U.S. Centers for Disease Control

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Green Science Policy Institute: