"Leave only footprints" may be the outdoor industry ethos, but Greenpeace says a study it recently conducted revealed troubling indications that the apparel made for outdoor recreation contains persistent chemicals, some of which are linked to negative health effects in both humans and animals.
For the study, Greenpeace commissioned two independent labs to analyze the waterproofing membranes applied to 14 different jackets and pants, which the organization purchased from a wide range of manufacturers, including The North Face, Marmot, Patagonia, and a number of companies popular in Europe, including Mammut and Jack Wolfskin. Greenpeace says the report highlights the need to ban PFCs from textile manufacturing.
The report focuses on perfluorochemicals (PFCs), a family of man-made compounds that are used in a range of industries. In outdoor clothing, PFCs are used in the manufacture of waterproof membranes and some types of PFCs have recently been regulated or are coming under regulation in some countries. The study found PFCs, in varying quantities, in all 14 samples. Also found were other chemicals that are known precursors to PFCs, and which are highly volatile, meaning they could convert to PFCs in the atmosphere.
Traces of PFCs are found around the globe—in us, in wildlife, and deep in the oceans. "We all carry parts-per-billion of some types of PFCs in our blood," says Craig Butt, a post-doctoral research fellow at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. Some are widely suspected endocrine (hormonal) system disruptors and are linked to fertility problems.
The issue with PFCs is that they're made of extremely stable compounds of carbon and fluorine, so they persist as they're transported around the environment via dust or through vectors. Textiles are a significant source of PFCs in the environment, but so are carpets, clothing, and food packaging.
"The Greenpeace report is one of the first to actually look at PFCs in waterproof clothing," says Butt. It's impossible to know how much waterproof clothing contributes to the problem, but there are certainly many other, more ubiquitous sources. "My gut is that waterproof clothing is not a major source of PFCs," he says.
Glenys Webster, a post-doctoral fellow at the Child and Family Research Institute and Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, agrees. She conducted her Ph.D. research on PFC traces found in pregnant women (the chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood), asking women detailed questions to determine how they're exposed to PFC chemicals. "Wearing Gore-Tex clothing did not come out as being an important source," she says of her research. That said, she thinks the findings of the Greenpeace report raise some important questions about the ways these hazardous compounds enter the environment. Follow-up studies, she adds, should focus on the exposures and potential health impacts in people who handle clothing that is lined with waterproof membranes—from textile manufacturers all the way to retail store employees.
The testing labs cut samples out of the 14 apparel items and then used solvents to extract the membrane components, which they then analyzed. While the report notes that PFCs can be released while washing these types of garments, and that PFCs released into wastewater are likely to persist through treatment and could end up in downstream water sources, little is known about the likely quantity of chemicals that are washed off. The solvents used in the study are much more extractive than conventional laundry soap would be, however. "This is like a worse case scenario," says Butt, referring to the use of solvents to extract.
In other words, just wearing these garments isn't going to pump significantly more PFCs into your bloodstream than are already there—and there are plenty of other sources of PFCs to worry about, such as food packaging, says Webster.
One type of PFCs that Greenpeace's report focused on is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which has been found to cause developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals. Traces of PFOA, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has started to regulate, were found in all of the samples tested, in varying quantities. PFOA isn't an ingredient in the waterproofing membranes; it’s a byproduct in their production but one that can remain in the final garment and enter the environment.
After reading the report, what concerned Craig Butt the most was the presence of fluorotelomer alcohols (FTOHs) and fluorotelomer acrylates (FTAs) in the tested samples—they were found in eight and 11 samples, respectively. Like PFOA, these chemicals persist in the membranes as a byproduct of the polymerization process. "The report focuses on the PFOA and I think that's where they missed the mark," he says. That's because FTOHs and FTAs are both volatile molecules and precursers to the family of chemicals called perfluorinated carboxylates (PFCAs), of which PFOA is a member. In other words, an FTOH or FTA molecule could be released from a membrane and then oxidize or metabolize into a PFOA or a similar molecule. "FTOH has a half-life in atmosphere of 10 days, so that's long enough for it to reach the Arctic, for example," he says.
All of the products tested contained FTOH or FTA. In fact, they comprised more than 95 percent of the PFCs detected in the samples, which is why Butt is alarmed by the findings. Vaude and Mammut had the highest levels of FTOH. Patagonia's jacket contained fairly high levels of FTOH and FTA, relative to PHOA.
A number of outdoor brands have been trying for years to usurp Gore-Tex from the waterproof-breathable membrane throne—and the battle has been really heating up in recent years. But Greenpeace says companies should instead be focusing on and improving alternative membranes that do not use fluorine-based chemicals. The report calls out a few of these alternatives, such as SympaTex (made with polyester). Other brands include Ecorepel, Purtex, and Bionic-Finish Eco. But as the group found out for itself in lab tests, these alternatives do not withstand abrasion or oil nearly as well as conventional fluorine-based membranes do. In other words, they'll remain waterproof as long as you don't move around too much or expose them to real-world use.
That said, the report also makes some logical suggestions, such as matching ones purchases with the likely rigors through which they'll be put. "For normal rainy or slushy weather your jacket does not need to withstand a 50,000mm water column," it notes.
On the other hand, consumers who spend a lot of time in extreme weather and depend on their gear to keep them warm and dry can argue that buying one jacket with a fluorine-based membrane is better than buying two or three less-capable versions, which will likely end up in landfills.
Patagonia provided Adventure Ethics with a statement in reaction to Greenpeace's report in which it acknowledges that it uses membranes based on PFCs and that trace amounts of PFOA persist in its hardshell jackets: "Patagonia has been in the process of adopting DWR [durable water repellent] technologies that will ensure our fabrics and products are PFOA free. The company has also developed a strategy to use PFC free DWR technologies when they suit end use."
The company is among the most outspoken in the outdoor industry about its own environmental impact. "PFCs are one of many supply chain issues Patagonia wrestles with internally on a daily basis. Years ago, the company decided to make supply chain challenges a public conversation; a conversation to be had transparently with customers," according to the statement. "The company’s Footprint Chronicles website speaks openly about PFCs and addresses 'the good and the bad' about the hundreds of products it sells."
The North Face says it "stands behind the quality of everything we sell, and regulatory agencies around the world have indicated that consumers are not at risk from the normal use of any of our products." It says it's also committed to developing solutions to "reduce our environmental impact through open collaboration and innovative design that allow us to continue to make high-quality products that meet our strict performance requirements." The North Face's parent company, VF Corp, has a restricted substance list that its suppliers are made to follow.
CUTTING THE CHAIN
Patagonia, Marmot, and other users of waterproof membranes are transitioning to compounds with shorter fluorocarbon chains. For example, PFOA has an eight-carbon chain, but companies are moving to compounds with six-carbon chains, because they degrade more quickly than eight-carbon chains. Research into four-carbon chains is also underway, but there is concern over degradation in performance with shorter chains.
Webster notes that four-carbon chains are also more water soluble. "They could get more easily into drinking water and we know very little about the toxicity of these new chemicals," she says. "So in switching away to other chemicals, we need evidence that what we're switching to is safer."
—Mary Catherine O'Connor