Hazardous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as highly fluorinated substances or PFAS, are being phased out, but it’s proving to be a job easier said than done. Suston reaches out to Lisa Skedung, co-editor of the recently released PFAS Substitution Guide, to find out what brands, suppliers and consumers need to know to put an end to them.
In broad strokes, what is the situation right now with PFAS in the apparel sector? How prevalent are they, and what are their impacts?
We are exposed to PFAS mainly through food, water and dust that have been spread to the environment during production, use and end-of-life of products containing PFAS. This is a very large group of chemicals, which have been linked to developmental effects, lower response to vaccines, liver defects, thyroid problems, and cancer and can be found in for example cookware, ski wax, grease resistant paper and packaging, bike lubes, cosmetics, coatings, and consumer electronics.
When it comes to textiles and garments, you’ll find that this industry has come much further than a lot of other product categories in phasing out PFAS – largely on account of consumer pressure, voluntary phase-out and current and pending legislation. This is particularly true in the outdoor industry, where PFAS have been very common in performance wear, as brands realised these were not the sort of chemicals they wanted in their products. After all, being outdoors while enjoying nature doesn’t exactly go hand in hand with simultaneously polluting it!
POPFREE has recently co-published a report together with Peak63N titled “PFAS Substitution Guide for Textile Supply Chains.” What was the underlying rationale for this report?
Well, despite a number of progressive apparel brands leading the way to PFAS-free solutions, there are far more who haven’t begun this work. And whether a brand is well on its way with these efforts or just getting started, there exists a large communication gap regarding the actual nature of the problem, the barriers to introducing substitutions and the potential downsides of “regrettable substitutions.”
The manual is an effort to fill this communication gap and correct widespread misconceptions around PFAS, not just for retailers and brands but also for suppliers to understand what exactly is now being asked of them. It is also a practical guide to the substitution of PFAS, with methodology advice, links to sources for further knowledge-building and suggestions of relevant tools.
What kind of misconceptions are out there that the report trying to clear up?
For the first part, PFAS include several thousands of different chemicals, the vast majority of which have not undergone rigorous testing in terms of health and environmental impacts. So while substituting one PFAS for another might be legal today, it is likely to face legislation tomorrow. I’ll get back to that.
Another major misconception is that it is not as simple as ordering PFAS-free membranes or DWRs. There are so many steps leading up to a finished garment where the materials have the opportunity to be contaminated with PFAS at the factory level, in shared production facilities handling other products that contain PFAS for example. Finally, there are also numerous auxiliary chemical processes where PFAS may be used, whereby while the final product may indeed be PFAS free, workers and the local environment remain exposed.
For these reasons, determining whether the end product and its production are in fact PFAS-free requires far greater due diligence than many just starting out on this path first realize. Solving this really comes down to communication with suppliers and a thorough risk assessments of substitutes. And without the right level of transparency and collaboration through all tiers, PFAS are likely to be found in both the production and end-product.
Looking at the various substitutions – are there any clear winners and ones to avoid? Do they come close to meeting the properties of PFAS?
Initially, there were many brands jumping to shorter chain PFAS to meet consumer pressure and legislation requirements. I think that looking back, many may have selected “regrettable substitutions,” as these substitute PFAS still had – or are likely to have – many of the same health and environmental risks as the chemicals they were meant to replace. Today, this appears to be changing as there are indeed a lot of commercially available options out there such as biobased, paraffin, and nanomaterial solutions to name a few.
Whether these come close to the properties of PFAS? Chemically speaking, it will be very difficult to match their durability and longevity, which is of course also the root of the problem of PFAS as “forever chemicals.” Consumers may need to change their behavior by reapplying treatments more often, and maybe in terms of performance we just have to say at some point that it’s good enough.
But the performance gap between PFAS and substitutes is getting smaller by the day because it doesn’t all come down to chemistry. For example, while the now restricted C8 PFAS treatments were quite robust and wide-ranging chemicals, we now see that for certain uses, fibers and pre-treatments, you can match the properties of currently legal C6 and C4 DWR quite well using substitutes. In other uses and fibers, it is still hard to reach the same performance properties without PFAS. So we will very likely see much more tailored solutions going forward, and probably also more in-depth application instructions to set all parameters right in production.
It remains a bit of a Wild West situation right now in terms of PFAS claims. What should product developers and consumers watch out for?
Well, to take an example from outside the textile industry, we’ve seen a lot of “PFOA-free” marketing within cookware. This claim may be true, but it is misleading in that the product still uses PFAS, just not PFOA. Marketing the lack of just one type of PFAS should raise red flags.
Help is hopefully on the way for business and consumers alike, as PFAS-specific standards are in the works that will help guide buying choices. Also, regulators have realized that it is impossible to test and regulate PFAS chemical by chemical. Meanwhile, awareness of the health related costs of PFAS not to mention clean up costs in the environment have become well established. A broad European Union PFAS regulation proposal is thus scheduled to be submitted in January 2023 that covers PFAS as a single group.
In the meantime, it’s important to remember that PFAS is the umbrella term that covers all of the five- to ten thousand per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, so the safest purchase is to find something that is “PFAS-free.” Product developers will want to take this a step further of course and request tests from suppliers proving the material in question is indeed PFAS-free, and also ensure that PFAS were not used as auxiliaries throughout its production. And again, it is important to take on a broader chemicals management regimen to be aware of any risks the PFAS substitutes may present. The Guide shares more on how to achieve this.
In general, there is a strong will among industry, consumers and legislators to put an end to these “forever chemicals.” Our guide has helped demonstrate that for the textile industry, it is indeed possible.