A little while ago, PFAS where big news in the Netherlands, where we live and work. In places where PFAS were discovered in too high concentrations in the soil (and that was about everywhere), building stops were announced. Also, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) warned that fruit and vegetables originating from vegetable gardens in the vicinity of a Teflon factory of DuPont/Chemours in Dordrecht were not considered suitable for consumption due to PFAS. A more recent study warned that it would be better not to eat some fish species from the Western Scheldt more than twice a year because they contain too much PFAS. (1)
The construction freeze has now been lifted. There are still just as many PFAS in the soil, but the solution was found by simply adjusting the standard. Problem solved!
PFAS are best known in relation to the coatings of non-stick pans and firefighting foam, yet the textile sector is responsible for almost half of PFAS production, a large share. So what are these dangerous PFAS?
PFAS is a collective name for more than 6000 substances that occur in widely differing consumer products. They are not only used in the production of fire extinguishing foam and non-stick pans but until July 2022 they could also be found in pizza boxes and baking paper. PFAS are man-made synthetic substances that are difficult or impossible to break down and can accumulate in organisms. The health consequences vary from high cholesterol to a less functioning immune system and several PFAS are known to be carcinogenic.
Because they do not break down, they are called 'forever chemicals', substances that remain in the environment indefinitely. In addition, they are very mobile and are therefore sometimes found at great distances from the place where they have been processed.
RIVM mainly studied the occurrence of PFAS in the soil, drinking and bathing water and food. The conclusion was that people in the Netherlands ingested more PFAS than the 'health-based limit value', in other words: there is a real risk that it can make you seriously ill. The health effects seem to start with a poorer functioning immune system, PFAS can also cause various cancers as well as an increased risk of miscarriages, obesity, precocious puberty. (2)
So why aren't they banned? That is of course up to politicians, the RIVM only states that PFAS have 'useful properties'. However, there is a proposal to ban all PFAS in the EU before 2025.
What about the application of PFAS in textiles? Here too, PFAS can be particularly 'handy' for certain functionalities. These are usually functions that are considered desirable but that are missing in the material itself and that are added to the textiles by treatment with synthetic agents. In practice, the fabric is then treated or after-treated in a chemical bath, the so-called 'fabric finishing' or 'finish'. Fabric finishing can concern many different matters that do not necessarily involve PFAS, for example the dyeing of a fabric is also included.
PFAS are mainly used in textiles because they can add functionality based on certain properties. One of those properties is that PFAS offer a high thermal stability and therefore do not change under the influence of heat. A second property is that they provide good water and oil repellency, in other words they have good hydrophobic or lipophobic properties, great for fabrics that are required for work clothing, outdoor clothing, firefighting suits and winter sports clothing for example, but also for interior fabrics and in particular fabrics for upholstery.
A third 'handy' property is that PFAS can change surface tensions. The latter could, for example, include a wrinkle-free finish for so-called 'non-iron' shirts, among other things.
In Europe, the textile sector is said to be responsible for almost half of PFAS consumption. A 2020 study stated that 45 to 80,000 tonnes of PFAS are consumed annually within the EU for application in the so-called TULAC industries. TULAC is the abbreviation for Textiles, Upholstery, Leather, Apparel, Carpets. They are mainly used in home textiles (50-53%) and in apparel (34-39%).(3) It is unclear how large PFAS consumption is on a global scale, but it is well known that European textile production is small compared to for example Asia.
This means that, even if the use of PFAS is restricted within Europe, textiles contaminated with PFAS will still reach Europe. By washing, etc., these non-degradable substances will still pollute the water and the soil here. Apart from that, PFAS already seem to occur worldwide due to their mobility and, like microplastics, they are already found in the most remote areas.
PFAS used in the textile industry, like microplastics and dyes, seem to end up in the environment through use and washing. It is not yet certain what the health effects of this type of cloth finishing are. For example, is it possible that PFAS, like components of certain dyes, can enter the human body through the skin? And what are the consequences of that?
In addition, it is a matter of concern that clothing labels or textiles in general do not have to contain a single word about the chemicals with which a fabric has been processed. It is sufficient to report the material composition, which keeps potentially hazardous chemicals out of sight.
Is the problem exaggerated? Some, especially in the conventional industry, seem to think so. The point is indeed that not everything is already known. And perhaps certain forms of fabric finishing are indeed very important for certain professional clothing. On the other hand, we are not completely in the dark. It has been established that PFAS can already cause health damage at low levels of exposure. Do we want to take that risk? It is also established that PFAS cause irreversible environmental damage. Do we want that? Do we want PFAS on our bodies? And do we want them in our homes?
We think it is best to go for natural materials. Textiles (both interior fabrics and clothing) that are GOTS certified are guaranteed not to contain PFAS.
If it isn't already too late. A recent publication by Stockholm University and ETH Zurich (August 2022) concluded that PFAS were found in too high concentrations in rainwater worldwide. The authors write about an existential crisis, urge that limits must be set for PFAS and that, when viewed closely, those limits have already been crossed.(4)
There are also good, effective and eco-friendly alternatives, such as water-repellent and fire-resistant finishes that can do without PFAS. This is important because textiles that are used in public areas such as theatres, restaurants, but also shop windows must have a fire-resistant finish.
It also appears that one added functionality to a substance is often enough. For example, for certain workwear, water repellency may be important, but fire resistance is not a requirement. A finish that offers only one added functionality is easier to make without the use of PFAS, for example a finish that only makes the fabric water-repellent. Sometimes the resources used for this are even allowed within the GOTS certification, as is the case with the water-repellent canvas in the Ecological Textiles collection.
1) RIVM has conducted several studies on PFAS. See about the PFAS pollution of the Western Scheldt: https://www.rivm.nl/publicaties/consumptie-van-producten-verontreinigd-met-pfas-uit-westerschelde
2) See this report from the European Environment Agency: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/emerging-chemical-risks-in-europe/emerging-chemical-risks-in-europe and this infographic: https: //www.eea.europa.eu/signals/signals-2020/infographics/effects-of-pfas-on-human-health
3) See Whiting, R., et al., The use of PFAS and fluorine-free alternatives in textiles, upholstery, carpets, leather and apparel (2020): https://echa.europa.eu/documents/10162/13641 /pfas_in_textiles_final_report_en.pdf/0a3b1c60-3427-5327-4a19-4d98ee06f041 Also: https://sustainfashion.info/the-use-of-perfluoroalkyl-and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas-in-textiles/
4) Cousins, I.T. et al., Outside the safe operating space of a new planetary boundary for Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.2c02765