Equilibrium & Sustainability

Stain- and water-resistant products plagued by PFAS: study

Two hikers approach the gated entrance to the Adirondack Mountain Reserve trailhead
Associated Press/

A wide range of products — from hiking pants to mattress pads — labeled as stain- or water-resistant tend to contain toxic substances known as “forever chemicals,” a new report has found.

The report, which analyzed a total of 60 products from 10 major retailers, identified per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in 72 percent of the 47 items marked as stain- or water-resistant.

The researchers also found that all products that were not marketed as stain- or water-resistant were PFAS-free, a news release accompanying the study said.

“Our testing finds continued, unnecessary use of the toxic chemicals known as PFAS in outdoor clothing and home furnishings like bedding and tablecloths,” Erika Schreder, study author and science director of the Toxic-Free Future environmental advocacy group, said in a statement.

PFAS are most known for their presence in firefighting foam, but they are also ubiquitous in a variety of household products, such as nonstick pans, cosmetics and waterproof apparel and boots. Notorious for their propensity to linger both in the body and in the environment, these so-called forever chemicals are linked to a variety of illnesses like kidney and thyroid disease.

“When companies use PFAS to make products stain- or water-resistant, they are using chemicals that contaminate homes, drinking water, and breast milk with highly persistent chemicals that can cause cancer and harm the immune system,” Schreder said.

The researchers said they grouped the products — all commonly used home furnishings and outdoor apparel — into three equally divided categories: hiking gear, bedding and tablecloths/napkins.

At least one product from every retailer on their list contained PFAS, the researchers said, explaining that tests for total fluorine and PFAS occurred at independent scientific laboratories. Total fluorine testing provides information about total PFAS concentration, while the second method enables compound-specific testing through mass spectrometry but is limited to only certain types of PFAS, the authors wrote.

Among the retailers included were Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Costco, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kohl’s, Macy’s, REI, Target, TJX and Walmart, according to the report.

“Rain jackets shouldn’t cause cancer—but for some of us, that just might be the case,” Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, said in a statement.

“These companies sold a convenience product to consumers without fully disclosing the toxic trade-off,” added Donovan, whose region of North Carolina has experienced severe PFAS contamination in drinking water.

“No one’s drinking water should be contaminated for a rain jacket,” Donovan said. 

All labeled items that were included in the study were manufactured in Asia, while home furnishings were primarily made in China, India and Pakistan, according to the report. The outdoor apparel mostly originated in Vietnam, Bangladesh, China, the Philippines and Indonesia.

The tests revealed that older types of PFAS that have already been banned in the European Union and that have been phased out by major U.S. manufacturers, as well as newer types of PFAS, were present in the samples, according to the report.

“Some companies are using PFAS-free alternatives, but until regulations ban PFAS in products, these dangerous chemicals will continue to be used in our raincoats and bedding,” Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future, said in a statement. “We need urgent action at the state and federal levels to solve the PFAS crisis, including by quickly stopping its use in products we wear and use in our homes.”

To date, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has only set health advisories for two types of PFAS — PFOS and PFOA — rather than regulate any of these thousands of compounds. The EPA has announced future plans to do so, but at the moment, it has been up to individual states to set standards for these chemicals.

The report recommended that state and federal leaders pass policies that would ban the use of PFAS in all textiles, as well as establish comprehensive standards for replacing these toxic chemicals with safer alternatives. In addition, the authors stressed the importance of ensuring cleanup of contaminated communities while leveraging government purchasing power to steer clear of PFAS.

While the Toxic-Free Future study explored PFAS content in products from a variety of retailers, the group referred to an ongoing national campaign that is calling upon REI in particular to eliminate PFAS from its merchandise.

The campaign, led by Toxic-Free Future with the groups Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and Safer States, challenges REI “to lead the outdoor apparel industry in a bold phase-out of PFAS from products.”

Representatives from the three groups charged REI with paving the way for “an aggressive transition away from PFAS” in a letter to the company earlier this fall — urging REI to publish bold policy for a phaseout of the compounds and to strengthen accountability for product suppliers. In December, about 100 local, state and national organizations sent another letter to REI’s CEO with similar such requests.

“Retailers, like REI, can stop contributing to this toxic trail of pollution by ensuring the products they sell are free of PFAS,” Mike Schade, director of Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program, said in a statement accompanying Wednesday’s report.

“As a company committed to sustainability and one of the biggest outdoor retailers in the U.S., REI has a responsibility to lead the outdoor industry away from these toxic chemicals,” he added.

The Hill has reached out to REI for comment regarding both these demands and Wednesday’s Toxic-Free Future report.

A November post from REI’s website indicated, however, that as of 2019, the company had eliminated “durable water repellents” that contain what’s known as “long-chain PFAS” — those with six or more carbons, and much longer half-lives, than “short-chain PFAS,” or those with five or fewer carbons.

The post described the use of short-chain PFAS alternatives as “a positive stepping stone” as the company explores “non-fluorinated alternatives” capable of providing “the best balance of permanence and environmental stewardship.”

Tags forever chemicals PFAS
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