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Safer outdoor gear on the way

Find Out Which Brands are Leading on PFCs

(Photo credit: Kim Howell Photography)

About fifteen years ago, I remember marveling at a pair of khakis being sold at Old Navy as “stain and water resistant.” How cool, I thought, I can be impervious to rain and pizza sauce forever! I think I bought three pair and made it a wardrobe staple. Like many consumers, I didn’t think to ask how Old Navy brought about this modern miracle in clothing design. Those pants almost certainly contained perfluorinated compounds or PFCs.

There are several forms of PFCs with the most common being perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFOA) which is used to make Teflon products, and perfluorooctane sulfonate (or PFOS) which were once used in Scotchgard products.

PFCs are used to repel oil and water from clothing, carpeting, furniture, and food packaging. That little miracle of chemical engineering comes at a high price though, it’s a likely human carcinogen, and the stuff can persist in the environment nearly forever. Animal studies are also linking PFCs to kidney, liver and reproductive disorders.

A Broken System

Because our federal toxics law is hopelessly weak and outdated, the
government has done little to get PFCs out of our products. Gradually, the private sector has taken steps to remove them, and in some cases replace them with safer alternatives. In 2002, the ubiquitous 3M Scotchgard brand started phasing them out, and in 2006, EPA, Teflon-maker Dupont, and seven other companies reached an agreement to phase out most PFCs from factories and products.

Those steps haven’t been enough. The clothing industry has continued to use PFCs. A 2011 NRDC blog says perfluorochemicals remain the finish of choice for manufacturers from Drizabone to L.L. Bean to Eddie Bauer, thanks to their versatility and lightness. Recently while shopping at Target, I came across a light jacket sold, under one of their store labels, that boasted it was “water resistant.” A telltale sign that it may have PFCs.

Progress at Last

So are we stuck with PFCs? Not at all. Clothing manufacturers can stop using them, and they are getting the message that customers don’t want them. Just last week, several clothing makers announced they will stop using the stuff. According to a story that is running in an edition of Greenwire this week, Schoeffel and Haglöfs — which is part of Asics — said they wouldn’t use PFOA. The European brands join labels like Patagonia and Marmot that have said they will cut back on the use of some harmful chemicals and will switch to compounds that degrade more quickly. H&M and Marks and Spencer have already instituted a ban.

What can you do? 

Most importantly I urge you to take action. Take a minute to join our Mind the Store campaign to urge stores like Target to get the Hazardous 100+ chemicals, PFCs among them, out of their products. You can also urge your senator to fight for strong chemical safety legislation.

Also avoid buying packaged foods with coatings that are supposed to limit grease and oil leaks, microwave popcorn for example. Try not to use non-stick pans and cookware, and particularly avoid letting them get over 450 degrees. And of course, stay away from those water and stain-resistant fabric clothing, rugs, carpets and the like, unless the manufacturer has promised to use safe alternatives.

Learn more about our Mind the Store campaign.