Hollywood Exhumes the True PTFE Story

A growing resistance to “everlasting chemicals” is greatly increasing the risk of a “Greta effect” when it comes to PFAS.

Many of us in the industry were probably hoping that with the world’s largest supplier of PTFE membranes agreeing to a phase-out plan with Greenpeace in early 2017, the issue of PFCs would be buried once and for all. Indeed, over the last three years it’s been quiet when it comes to the “everlasting chemical” as it’s called. PFCs are being increasingly replaced by non-fluorine alternatives in DWR treatments used in outdoor clothing. That only leaves workwear clothing, where it appears that oil-resistant fabrics continue to be more important than the ecological heritage of our industry.

And now, just in time for ISPO 2020, Hollywood has exhumed this topic: Filming the story of Rob Bilott, a lawyer who exposed the decades-long cover- up of the environmental and health side-effects of PTFE production, a problem that to date has been obscured by the DWR discussion. Dark Waters (in American theaters since November 2019 and in European theaters beginning in February 2020), tells the true story of a corporate lawyer who – after observing decades of unscrupulous conduct by manufacturers of this once highly-promising material – decides to switch allegiances and becomes a bitter enemy of the industry.

GenX PFC legislation lagging

Despite the fact that the risks of PFC chemicals for humans was well-known internally as far back as the 80s, for decades manufacturers around the world discharged the production waste into the environment or it ended up on landfills. It wasn’t until just the last ten years that massive pressure led PTFE manufacturers to systematically replace PFOA, but with materials that belong to the same family of fluorine chemicals.

These supposedly harmless PFC alternatives are called GenX or ADONA for example. Modifying a few details in the molecular structure of PFAS is sufficient to warrant new research to determine any corresponding health and cancer risks, an enormously time-consuming endeavor that leads to massive delays in government legislation in light of the tens of thousands variants.

“Dark Waters” revives PFAS resistance

Increasing public resistance has been forming for several months now, however. In conjunction with the premier of Dark Waters, attorney Rob Bilott and actor Mark Ruffalo, who plays the leading role in the movie, testified at a congressional hearing in the US on the topic of PFAS. This subsequently transformed PFAS into a 2020 US campaign issue and should provide the issue much-needed public visibility.

This issue has simultaneously escalated in Europe after the European Chemicals Agency last summer classified GenX and others from this family of substances, which are still used today in the manufacture of PTFE (and to some extent released to the environment), as “substances of very high concern.”

Given that these substances and their chemical predecessors – exclusively manmade – are non-biodegradable and are disseminated via wastewater and spread through the air, traces can be found not only in the direct vicinity of the production facilities, but also in groundwater near remotely-located plants. Not to mention in human and animal bloodstreams.

A “Greta effect” likely

While blood tests of residents in the Bavarian community of Burghausen, which included children, failed to create any major waves a couple of years ago, new legal restrictions in Holland on some types of PFAS during soil dumping brought the construction industry to a standstill over the past couple of months and turned it into fodder for the evening news. A nationwide petition calling for a complete ban is already underway.

This begs the question that given the availability of polyester- and polyurethane- based alternatives with comparable performance, why has the outdoor industry still failed to realize that diverting attention from the risks of environment collateral damage is not a sustainable strategy? Thanks to Hollywood, consumers are now likely to understand the consequences of using PFAS and that a “Greta effect” will be produced that has made the issue of “climate gases” an unavoidable obligation for our industry within only 18 months.

The story of Rob Bilott now serves as a reminder that, given the risks, we should have decided to completely phase-out this chemical long ago. If we are now beginning to think about the 2021/2022 winter collection that will hit the stores in 18 months, perhaps we should consider going to the movies first.

SympaTex
melanie.haas@norragency.com