Study finds toxic ‘permanent chemicals’ in most stain-resistant and waterproof textiles

key takeaways

  • The researchers tested 47 products with anti-fouling or water-resistant labels. Nearly three-quarters of products contain harmful PFAS.
  • Toxic chemicals are found in a variety of products, including bedding, yoga pants, tablecloths and raincoats.
  • PFAS can cause serious and long-term health effects.

Toxic “permanent chemicals” can be found in a variety of products we wear, sleep and eat, according to a new report.

Many products sold in stain and water repellent products contain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. The components of PFAS break down very slowly over time, and they are present in people’s blood, everyday products and the environment. PFAS is associated with many health problems, including various cancers, liver and thyroid diseases, and immunosuppression.

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In a report published in January 2022, researchers from the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future conducted PFAS tests on 60 products from 10 major retailers. Items included in the study ranged from outdoor clothing to napkins to bedding from major retailers such as REI, Walmart and Target.

For this study, researchers screened selected items for fluorine, a key chemical component of PFAS, and sent fluorinated products to a lab to test the chemical’s concentration and composition.

Of the 47 antifouling and waterproofing products sold, 72% contained PFAS. Each of the 10 retailers included in this report contained at least one product with PFAS.

“I’m afraid there are very few consumer products that are completely PFAS-free right now,” Graham Peaslee, Ph.D., a professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame, who was not associated with the report, told VigorTip. “I don’t think you’ll find a lot of things that aren’t fluoridated, including the people who wear them – we all have fluoride in our blood from these types of chemicals, and it’s not clear how to get rid of them completely other than stop using them at the source .”

exposure through textiles

The researchers found that products advertised as stain- and water-repellent were highly likely to contain PFAS, while products that were not advertised were PFAS-free.

Water and stain repellent products have long been manufactured using PFAS-rich chemical surface treatments or lamination films.

Certain products containing PFAS, such as fast food wrappers and nonstick cookware, interact directly with food. But even if we don’t eat or drink items that contain PFAS, such as raincoats or waterproof boots, the chemicals can affect our bodies, according to Erika Schreder, author and scientific director of the Toxic-Free Future study.

“What we’re seeing is they’re putting PFAS into the air, and then we’re breathing those chemicals,” Schreider told VigorTip. “Many of us will work in environments where PFAS-treated items are present, or go to school in indoor environments that are contaminated with PFAS.”

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PFAS have been detected in carpeted nurseries, schools, retail stores and workplaces. When people spend a lot of time in spaces containing PFAS-containing items, they may ingest or inhale chemicals that have detached from PFAS-treated carpets and become airborne.

Hundreds of studies link PFAS to thyroid dysfunction, various cancers, elevated cholesterol levels, reduced kidney function, and even lower immune responses– Results that adversely affect during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Exposure to even small amounts can be harmful over time because the toxins persist in the body, and scientists have yet to find a way to scrub them.

PFAS-treated textiles cause long-term environmental crisis

PFAS can seep into waterways and soil through manufacturing processes and textile mills that apply chemicals to clothing and household items. These chemicals also break down into drinking water when PFAS-treated garments are washed.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 66 percent of textiles produced in one year in 2018 ended up in landfills. Over the next few decades, most of the PFAS in these garments will be released into the environment.

Peaslee estimates that a heavy coat may contain half a pound of fluoride. “This is a very serious environmental problem in the United States. These chemicals aren’t going away — they’re going to circulate for thousands of years,” he said.

Some microorganisms can degrade plastic and other toxic substances in landfills. In the case of PFAS, the carbon-fluorine chain is attached to another carbon. Microbes can metabolize carbon bonds, but leave carbon-fluorine chains behind. That means the complex PFAS molecules are partially degraded, but the underlying carbon-fluorine bonds are so strong and durable “that they will last forever,” Peaslee said. These persistent chemicals can contaminate the environment and end up in humans and animals.

Textile manufacturers and retailers lag behind

In 2006, the European Union banned the use of one of the most harmful types of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, known as PFOA, and in 2019 restricted the use of PFOS. In the US, eight major manufacturers agreed to phase out PFOA production by 2015. The EPA said it would update drinking water health advice, but has yet to make any regulations for the chemicals.

Among PFAS, the hazards of PFOS and PFOA are best documented. Still, Toxic Free Future found that three-quarters of items tested for PFAS included these chemicals.

“When we bought these products, years after we found out that these chemicals were toxic, they were still very common,” Schreider said. Her team purchased these products in 2020.

Alternatives to DuPont Teflon-coated nonstick pans emerged as early as 2007, which were found to contain high levels of PFAS. But according to Peaslee, the textile industry is relatively behind other industries in producing PFAS-free products.

“Fluoride is disappearing from the coat. But chemical companies have been very diligent and have gotten it elsewhere,” Peasley said. “I think the textile industry was a little bit caught off guard by this – no one ever checked what was on their material.”

Research over the past decade has shown high concentrations of these toxic chemicals in all kinds of clothing. PFAS are used for fire protection as well as waterproofing and antifouling properties in apparel such as school uniforms and firefighter uniforms. They are found in products ranging from menstrual underwear to swimwear.

Researchers are investigating whether PFAS can be absorbed through the skin, especially in sensitive areas such as the underarms, groin, and neck. A study in mice showed that the health effects of skin exposure were comparable to those of ingesting PFAS in water or food.

If future research suggests that skin is an important mode of exposure, it may be of particular relevance to manufacturers and retailers of clothing and goods such as bedding and car seats.

End Forever Chemicals

Manufacturers appear to be pushing PFAS forward, creating products that use safer alternatives such as silicone and paraffin. After all, 28 percent of the items in the study that were labeled as water- and stain-resistant were certified PFAS-free.

“We’re delighted to find that consumers have choice — companies have successfully made products that people want without these toxic chemicals,” Schreider said.

But Schreider said regulations must go beyond banning PFAS production in the United States. All labeled items included in the study were made in Asia. In 2021, the United States imported more than 89 billion square meters of textile and apparel equivalent. Even with stricter U.S. policies to regulate PFAS, these chemicals could still contaminate homes and waterways through foreign products.

“We need to simply ban the presence of PFAS in products, if manufactured or sold In America,” Schreider said.

The EPA took the first steps towards setting enforceable limits for these chemicals in October. The agency will limit contamination of a few of the most prevalent PFASs, require manufacturers to report how much PFAS they use in their products, and invest in research and cleanup efforts.

However, after decades of research into the health hazards of PFAS, there are no enforceable federal regulations and state standards. Additionally, the EPA roadmap considers only the most prevalent PFASs, even though this category contains more than 4,700 chemicals.

The drive to restrict PFAS products may first come from industry, not regulators, Peaslee said. With growing evidence of the health risks and prevalence of these chemicals, manufacturers will be forced to develop greener alternatives to PFAS-containing products.

Researchers and organizations like Toxic-Free Future can raise awareness of the problem, and consumers can limit their PFAS exposure by avoiding the sale of products that are stain-resistant or waterproof.

“If you’re going to Mount Everest, you probably do want a fluorinated jacket. But if you’re going to the mall, do you really need it? The answer is no,” Peasley said.

what does this mean to you

You can reduce your exposure to these harmful chemicals by looking for products that are labeled “PFAS-free.” Experts say the easiest way to limit PFAS exposure is to avoid products that claim to be stain- or water-resistant.