Understanding the PFAS problem — and what we can do about it

Raindrops hitting a weather-resistant material
Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

How much do you know about what’s in your clothing? While we can all appreciate the comfort of a weatherproof jacket on a stormy day, understanding the process behind many garments is usually less comforting. Oftentimes, harmful chemicals are added to our weather- or stain-resistant clothing and home textiles (without us even knowing it) to repel liquids like water and oil. 

These Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, commonly referred to as PFAS, are a group of manufactured chemicals used in a number of industries—including the textile industry—and are harmful to the health of people and the environment. Because these toxic substances are extremely persistent (referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because many of them can’t be broken down by natural processes), they can end up all around us: in our water, air, soil, and food. 

Chart shows different ways PFAS coated apparel contaminates water sources
Source: NRDC

How are PFAS used in textiles?

PFAS are often added to our clothing and many household textiles (including carpets, upholstery, tablecloths, and even bedding) in the form of a coating or finish because they are able to repel things like water, oil, dirt, and stains. While they are meant to protect our textiles, they do much more harm than good. These toxic chemicals are released from textiles into the world around us, negatively affecting both human and environmental health. This release can happen at the chemical production sites, while treated textiles are being manufactured, while they are in use, during laundering, and after they are disposed of.

So, how are PFAS dangerous?

PFAS can negatively impact our health in a number of ways. Since PFAS don’t break down naturally, they bioaccumulate in human and animal tissues, and have been detected in the blood of humans and animals around the world. Current research shows that exposure to PFAS affects reproductive health, leads to increased risk of certain cancers, has developmental effects on children, and more. 

These harmful chemicals can be found in places like: drinking water, soil and water near waste sites, food and food packaging, biosolids, and more. Because of their vast presence, we can be exposed to PFAS simply by breathing air, drinking water, or eating foods that contain them.  

A recent article in The Guardian highlights how PFAS contamination into biosolids has affected some farms in Maine. This is a major concern for organic waste managers who are trying to promote composting and create circular soil-to-soil systems, whose efforts will be held back if there is so much toxicity in our products and waste streams that we can’t return things back to the soil. 

What can we do about this issue?

As individuals, it is helpful to choose untreated natural fiber clothing whenever possible, and when weather resistance is needed, seek out and support companies that use natural alternatives for waterproofing, and those that pledge to avoid PFAS on their products. The development of new natural and biodegradable options for waterproofing fabrics has had some promising developments, but widespread industry adoption will require more dedicated research and development with an aim to eliminate all ingredients in our clothing that cannot safely be absorbed into our bodies and ecosystems. We can also look to traditional and historical use of water-resistant weaving techniques, naturally water-resistant fibers like wool, and natural wax-based waterproofing. Traditional methods for product care and maintenance using natural waxes may require learning some new basic skills, but the reward is an opportunity to have waterproofing options that pose no danger to our communities and the natural world.

Demanding greater transparency in fabric finishings is crucial. We just don’t know enough about which products have these chemicals added to them. For instance, a recent study documented that PFAS were found in children’s clothing items labeled ‘green’ that gave no indication of PFAS content. People can ask the brands they shop from whether they are using PFAS and tell those brands that they don’t want these chemicals in their products.

While change at the individual level is valuable, supporting a regulatory and policy shift that will force companies to stop using PFAS and develop alternatives is essential—and that will happen though market pressure and legislation and policy changes.

Simply put, these chemicals need to be regulated and phased out by the industries that are using them. There have been a number of national efforts to enact policy against PFAS—in local legislation as well as by companies. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency released its PFAS Strategic Roadmap in 2021.

California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control currently regulates PFAS through notification requirements for carpets and treated textiles (those policies were enacted just last year in 2021.) There are also several pieces of recent and pending legislation in California regarding PFAS, including a ban on PFAS in many children’s products passed in 2021.

PFAS bills currently under consideration in the California legislature are: 

Find more information about PFAS legislation from the NRDC.

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