PFAS outdoor wear

PFAS widespread in water- and stain-resistant outdoor clothes, home linens

“The chemical industry has been arguing that, ‘oh, we’ve been moving away from these substances, we’re no longer using them.’ And that’s not true.”

Looking for a new tablecloth or comforter? You might want to take a closer look if it’s stain-resistant because it likely contains toxic “forever chemicals,” according to a new report.

The non-profit Toxic-Free Future found that almost three-quarters of 47 pieces of outdoor apparel, bedding, and kitchen linens that were marketed as stain- or water-resistant contain one or more per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. And many of these items contained specific PFAS banned in the European Union and no longer made in the U.S. due to their health effects.

Related: Investigation finds evidence of PFAS in workout and yoga pants

“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,” said Erika Schreder, science director for Toxic-Free Future, in a statement.

“Significant levels” of PFAS detected

PFAS are manmade compounds used to make everything from nonstick pans to infant bibs resist oil and water. Because of how long they last in the environment and in our bodies, they’re known as “forever chemicals.” Scientists have known for decades that some older kinds of PFAS contribute to cancer, reproductive and immune systems damages, elevated cholesterol, and other health issues. And evidence is emerging that newer PFAS, billed as safer replacements, have similar health effects.

In the U.S., companies don’t have to disclose whether they’re using PFAS in consumer goods. While there have been some studies looking at how much, and what kind, of PFAS are used to waterproof outdoor apparel, there’s been little research to date on the compounds’ presence in home linens, according to Toxic-Free Future.

The nonprofit commissioned testing of 60 items — 20 each in the outdoor clothes, kitchen linens, and bedding categories — for total fluorine, an indicator of PFAS. They then sent items with higher levels of fluorine, more than 100 parts per million (ppm), to be tested for 51 different kinds of PFAS.

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Toxic-Free Future found that 34 out of the 47 items labelled as stain- or water-resistant contained PFAS. Michael Schade, director of Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store campaign, told EHN that he was surprised that so many of the products had older PFAS.

“The chemical industry has been arguing that, ‘oh, we’ve been moving away from these substances, we’re no longer using them,’ ” he said. “And that’s not true.” Schade noted that this could also be because newer PFAS can break down into the older ones.

Some items stood out for having high total fluorine, which are more representative of the total PFAS finish on the product, and individual PFAS measurements. Clothing had the highest amounts of fluorine overall. The REI Co-op Drypoint GTX Jacket Men’s and the REI Co-op Westwinds GTX Jacket Women’s both had total fluorine measurements of more than 80,000 ppm — much higher levels than any other items tested.

The Real Simple Fresh and Clean Fiberbed had more than 1,200 ppm total fluorine and among the highest PFAS levels for a home linen. Meanwhile the Daily Chef Table Napkin had more than 600 ppm total fluorine and a range of PFAS.

“These are significant levels,” of PFAS, Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who was not involved with the study, told EHN. For comparison, scientists and regulators are concerned about PFAS in drinking water in the parts per trillion range, she noted.

PFAS from textiles can build up in household dust, and there’s emerging evidence suggesting that we could absorb some of the compounds through our skin. Treated jackets and other items can also contaminate water supplies as PFAS run off them in the wash.

It’s not just outdoor gear either: recent testing from and Mamavation that found one in four pairs of popular leggings and yoga pants—including from popular brands like Old Navy and Lululemon—tested have detectable levels of the PFAS-indicator fluorine.

Moving toward PFAS alternatives

The good news? Items that weren’t branded as stain- and waterproof seemed to be PFAS-free. And some outdoor companies, like Mammut and Black Diamond, have started using alternative finishes to waterproof their clothes, the report notes. Toxic-Free Future recommends that textile makers stop using PFAS in their products and screen any replacements for hazardous effects. The nonprofit has been campaigning outdoor retail giant REI to stop selling PFAS-containing clothes and gear.

“While a number of retailers have adopted policies to reduce and eliminate PFAS, it's clear that more work is still needed to drive these chemicals out of supply chains that are still being found in products available on store shelves,” said Schade.

Banner photo credit: Axel Magard/flickr

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