The impact and use of PFAS in the textile and clothing industry
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) is the term used to describe a large group of more than 4700 synthetic organic substances heavily used in consumer and professional products. Although they are predominantly used for non-stick cookware and firefighting foams because of their water, stain, and grease-resistant properties, they are also heavily utilised in textile and clothing industries to achieve waterproof, or “sweat-wicking” garments.
The chemical makeup of PFAS chemicals provides high stability which therefore makes them very persistent to decomposition, earning themselves their metaphoric name of “forever chemicals” - as they simply do not breakdown in the standard way which we see other chemicals and substances breakdown both in a natural environment or with human intervention. PFAS chemicals have now been detected in air, oil, water and even household dust. Studies have shown that PFAS chemicals are emitted to the environment at every stage of their life cycle. This includes the production the use, and even the disposal stage of the textile or clothing material.
Because of the tiny size of PFAS chemicals, they are dispersed over vast planes and have been found far from their places of origin. There is also evidence of PFAS being found in the Arctic. Because of this, humans are continuously exposed to PFAS. Recently, drinking water and even diet have been established as some of the main exposure routes. However, the use of consumer products, dust, and other environments are still a factor in the human consumption of PFAS. An estimated 99% of people living in developed countries have detectable concentrations of PFAS in their blood. Regardless of this evident impact on the human population, there is very little research on the long-term health effects of the chemicals; with the Royal Society of Chemistry commenting: “To date, the basic fate and behaviour of PFAS in the human body remains uncertain” (2021).
PFAS chemicals have been associated globally with negative health impacts including negative impacts on fertility, foetal development, and thyroid hormone function. The negative impacts of PFAS chemicals have also been highlighted in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shows us that PFAS chemicals have the potential to make vaccines less effective.
Up to half of the total use of PFAS chemicals can be accounted for in the textile industry alone due to their textile-enhancing properties that achieve breathability, thermal stability, and durability. The properties of PFAS naturally make the chemical group appealing for a variety of reasons in clothing manufacture, including outerwear, gym apparel, and sportswear generally.
Although there are other usable agents on the market, alternatives are more limited and do not provide the wide scope of options that PFAS chemicals provide to textile industry.
Many clothing producers are looking for alternative agents but are still relying heavily on PFAS chemicals for their textile production needs. These alternatives, and the scope to develop new methods of clothing manufacture without PFAS chemicals, represents an opportunity to be the front runner in a new generation of textile production and to inspire industry players to move beyond the conventional use of PFAS and take steps to design and create innovative solutions and safer alternatives for the preservation and protection of the natural environment and human health ahead of a regulatory intervention on the use of PFAS chemicals.
The European Union is leading the way in regulating PFAS, with the UK picking up some of the legislation and adopting the same approach. The regulations on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (“REACH”) addressed a number of PFAS chemicals, but with the vast amount of chemical make ups, they seem to be falling short of some more specific prohibitions that we see in other EU countries. These further measures include the prohibited use of perfluorohexane-1-sulphonic acid (PFHxS) by Norway, undecafluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA) by Germany and a restriction covering a wide range of PFAS uses by the national authorities of Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, amongst other proposals.
Whilst we are seeing the potential for vast regulation in the near future, which will more than likely include some of the PFAS chemicals currently on the REACH Candidate List of substances of very high concern, many textile outfits will need to either outsource their manufacture to countries where PFAS is not mandated such as China (providing the import of the chemical is not also prohibited in the destination country), or change the make-up of their textile material and apparel, proving their own commercial and strategic issues, including potential negative impacts on the brand itself.
In the US, and in the US textile and apparel markets specifically, states are beginning a full phase out of PFAS in textiles. Maine, for example, requires that all PFAS should be quantified and declared, with a general ban expected by 2030 (LD1503 Bill). New York has one of the most ambitious timeframes, as PFAS was set to be banned on all apparel by December 2023 (S6291A Bill). Finally, California has one of the most precise and detailed bills the prohibition of selling garments containing intentionally added PFAS at 100 parts per million by 2025 and 50 parts per million by 2027.