Today’s eco-question: Water-repellent, stain-resistant – how do textiles containing PFAs impact our environment?

There was a time when textiles raced to deliver the best performance. From anti-stain to water-repellent to easy-care, whether to eliminate ironing, reduce the risk of staining a precious garment or protect from the tiniest drop of water, the innovations keep on coming. Particularly in the outdoor sector, performance has often been coupled with fluorinated components.

An everlasting impact

Nicknamed “Forever chemicals”, PFAs—per– and polyfluoroalkylated substances—first emerged on the scene in the 1940s. Thanks to the versatility of their industrial applications, PFAs can be found in everything from high-performance textiles and paints to non-stick coatings for frying pans and food packaging. These super-resistant carbon and fluorine chains are omnipresent, generating traces of PFAs in the air, soil and even groundwater. Their persistant presence in organisms and the environment means that their impact lasts long after exposure. They can cause health problems such as liver damage, thyroid disease, fertility problems and certain cancers.

Surveillance and regulation

But could this be the beginning of their end? While their impact in different concentrations has yet to be determined, vigilance is the watchword.

As the REACH Regulation currently stands, only certain classes of PFAs, PFOs and PFOAs, the so-called “long-chain” PFAs, are already banned in Europe. However, other “short-chain” PFAs, used as substitutes, are suspected of having a similar toxicity. For this reason, regulating the entire family of PFAs, rather than each individual substance, is either being studied or already underway. More than 12,000 types of PFAs are currently referenced.

Some US states, such as New York and California, are banning the voluntary addition of PFAs to product formulas as of 2024. In Europe, the upcoming revision of Reach could also lead to a drastic reduction in use thresholds or a ban on PFAs as a whole.

Read also: Smart Key: How to combine performance fabrics and eco-responsibility in sports?

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Products presented without PFAs or PFCs (Perfluorinated Compounds-Composés Perfluorés) are already free of these risky substances.

Since 2023, more and more initiatives have been taken to address the issue. ZDHC has included PFAs in its list of restricted substances (ZDHC MRSL). OEKO-TEX® has issued a general ban on the use of these substances in textiles, leather and footwear for its Standard 100, Leather Standard and Eco Passport certifications. The Bluesign® Finder service has removed all PFA-based chemicals from its system, and is now able to identify 150 safe chemical alternatives.

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