PFCs, PFOAs, PFOs and now PTFEs – what exactly do all these acronyms mean, and why have they been getting so much attention?
What are fluorocarbons?
Flourocarbons are a group consisting of roughly 4,000 long-lasting and often environmentally hazardous substances. The most widely known chemical among these is perhaps PFCs (perfluorocarbons), as well as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluoroocatane sulfonate). Flourocarbons are used to make products resistant to stains, grease, soil and water. These characteristics are highly sought-after by outdoor enthusiasts, who are often subject to tough environments with a lot of cold, dirt and moisture. PFCs are extremely durable, surviving substantial wear and tear and temperature ranges, thus requiring less reapplication to maintain these repelling properties. But this is also where the problems begin to arise.
What are the environmental and health impacts of fluorocarbons?
Fluorocarbon emissions can occur at every stage of a PFC-containing product’s lifecycle: during production itself, during use and washing, and when the clothing is thrown away or recycled. And because they are extraordinarily chemically stable, highly fluorinated substances break down extremely slowly in nature. Thus, they tend to accumulate and get spread across the environment by wind and water, eventually finding their way into food chains – including our own. Several of the compounds are suspected of being carcinogenic, and studies on animals have also shown that elevated levels can cause liver damage and affect both the immune system and the ability to reproduce.
While there is still a lot of uncertainty regarding exactly how dangerous these substances are for humans, it is clear that they are accumulating in all living organisms across the globe. Relatively high levels have been measured in polar bears in the Arctic, for example, and traces have been found in humans on all continents.
What can be done to mitigate these impacts?
For one: Regulation. Some of the most toxic fluorocarbons, such as PFOS and PFOA are now widely restricted or are in the midst of being phased out. Manufacturers in many industries are working to produce fluorocarbon-free alternatives with similar properties. But as these substances are found in so many products, often imported from countries with lax regulation, phasing them out completely is proving to be much more difficult. Moreover, parts of the chemicals industry are trying to be one step ahead of regulators in developing new compounds of PFCs that are not yet fully assessed for their potential hazards. Thus legislation – and the consumer – are constantly left one step behind.
Are there sustainable alternatives?
With these challenges in mind, there are large differences between manufacturers when it comes to their chemical management, and good choices are indeed available. In outdoor products, fluorocarbons have primarily been used in two areas: Partly in textile impregnations (often called durable water repellents, or DWR) to resist moisture, grease, and dirt, and partly in the production of membranes that help clothing ventilate moisture and excess heat while keeping moisture out. The breathable membranes are often made of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). This is a fluorinated polymer made up of fluorine and carbon.
Greenpeace, that has for years protested against the usage of PFCs under the campaign Detox Outdoor, agrees that PTFE itself is not a PFC of Environmental Concern or a Hazardous PFC. The organization still raises questions, however, about release of toxic substances at the end of the product life cycle, depending on how it is disposed. Today, there are a number of fluorocarbon free options to choose from both with DWR and membranes. Many brands have already phased out fluorocarbons completely, and several of the larger retail chains are working continuously to minimize the supply of waterproof clothing that is impregnated with fluorocarbons.
Illustrations: Nadia Nörbom