Is your favourite raincoat, hiking boots or period underwear causing you more harm than good?
When we get dressed in the morning, we usually don’t think about what chemicals are lurking in our clothing. But there’s a potentially harmful group of chemicals present in everything we use daily – from our waterproof jackets to our food wrappers and non-stick frying pans, namely PFAS.
Short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are a large group of synthetic chemicals which contain carbon-fluorine bonds, some the strongest chemical bonds found in organic chemistry. And just like Covid-19, they have been spreading at an alarming rate. They’re found in everything from our drinking water to our soil, our food and even our blood. PFAS are so widespread that an international group of scientists backed by the REACH Regulation (which aims to protect consumers and the environment through early and improved identification of chemicals) are calling for a restriction proposal of the production and use of all PFAS in the EU.
PFAS: the fashion industry’s ‘dirty’ secret
However, getting rid of PFAS is much easier said than done. This group of some 5,000 chemicals is used by a number of industries from food to fashion, cosmetics and agriculture. Invented in the 1950s, PFAS are blended into a variety of materials and textiles to create a protective sealant or resistant layer. Incredibly durable, they are used by outdoor and apparel brands to ensure that your jacket keeps you dry, and your shoes do not get dirty. Brands ranging from The North Face to Patagonia and Wolverine use PFAS in their Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment to prevent surface saturation on their outdoor apparel and footwear.
However, because PFAS are so long-lasting, they resist degradation and accumulate with time. A single carbon-fluorine bond is so strong it cannot simply be pulled apart – it’s like sticking two Lego blocks together with superglue. “Once PFAS are emitted, either during production, product use or disposal, it is very difficult to remove them from the environment,” explains Steffen Schellenberger, PhD Materials and Production Researcher at RISE (Research Institutes of Sweden) to FashionUnited. “Since they have spread across the whole planet, you can find them everywhere – even in very remote regions.”
‘Forever chemicals’ in everything from your raincoat to your blood
Levels of PFAS have been found in groundwater and soil around the world, from the US to the UK and the Netherlands, earning them the nickname ‘forever chemicals’. What’s more, PFAS are believed to be found in the bloodstreams of nearly every living being on the planet. Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFAS they’ve found it – in the blood or vital organs of everything from humans, to salmon and Alaskan polar bears. In the past, studies have shown that several of the longer-chain PFAS, known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), can act as Endocrine-disrupting compounds and interfere with the natural hormones in our bodies, causing a range of health issues such as type two diabetes, immune disorders and poor cardiovascular health.
Fashion United UK, 10 September 2020