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New study finds toxic chemicals in most products labeled stain- or water-resistant

PFAS “forever chemicals” that can cause cancer and immune system harm found in rain jackets, hiking pants, mattress pads, comforters, napkins, and tablecloths

Report also reveals that PFAS-free items are in use in every product category studied

SEATTLE, WA—A new study released today by Toxic-Free Future finds toxic chemicals in most products labeled stain- or water-resistant, with 72% testing positive for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Items that were found to contain “forever chemicals” include rain jackets, hiking pants, mattress pads, comforters, napkins, and tablecloths. The report, called Toxic Convenience: The hidden costs of forever chemicals in stain- and water-resistant products, also reveals that PFAS-free products are available in each of the three main product categories studied, proving that alternatives are in use.

The first-ever release of brand-specific information on the presence of PFAS in key home furnishings, the study analyzed a total of 60 products purchased from 10 major retailers. Out of 47 products marketed as stain- or water-resistant, the majority (72%) contained PFAS. Conversely, all products tested that were not marketed as stain- or water-resistant were found to be PFAS-free. 

“Our testing finds continued, unnecessary use of the toxic chemicals known as PFAS in outdoor clothing and home furnishings like bedding and tablecloths,” said Erika Schreder, study author and science director for Toxic-Free Future. “When companies use PFAS to make products stain- or water-resistant, they are using chemicals that contaminate homes, drinking water, and breast milk with highly persistent chemicals that can cause cancer and harm the immune system.” 

At least one product from every retailer was found to contain PFAS. The study tested products from retailers including Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Costco, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kohl’s, Macy’s, REI, Target, TJX, and Walmart. Testing for total fluorine and PFAS was conducted at independent scientific laboratories.

“Retailers, like REI, can stop contributing to this toxic trail of pollution by ensuring the products they sell are free of PFAS,” said Mike Schade, director of Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program. “As a company committed to sustainability and one of the biggest outdoor retailers in the U.S., REI has a responsibility to lead the outdoor industry away from these toxic chemicals.”

Products were grouped into three categories: outdoor gear, bedding, and tablecloths/napkins, with 20 items in each product category. The analysis focused on commonly-used product categories and found PFAS-containing items in each of the three groups.

“Rain jackets shouldn’t cause cancer—but for some of us, that just might be the case,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear. “These companies sold a convenience product to consumers without fully disclosing the toxic trade-off. In my region of North Carolina, our drinking water has been severely contaminated from the manufacture of PFAS chemicals. No one’s drinking water should be contaminated for a rain jacket.” 

The study also reveals that manufacturers have been using a mixture of PFAS, including compounds currently banned in other countries. Testing found both older PFAS, already banned in the European Union and phased out by major U.S. manufacturers, as well as newer PFAS. Although the newer PFAS compounds are commonly believed to be the most in use, 74% of items with PFAS tested positive for the older PFAS. 

“PFAS contamination of the Arctic poses a particular threat to the health of Indigenous peoples who are reliant on traditional foods as essential to their physical, spiritual, and cultural sustenance,” said Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics and co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). “It is time to stop this terrible injustice, hold manufacturers accountable, and urgently establish national and international bans for the entire class of PFAS.”

The study found items in each category that were marketed as stain- and/or water-resistant yet appeared to be free of PFAS.  “Some companies are using PFAS-free alternatives, but until regulations ban PFAS in products, these dangerous chemicals will continue to be used in our raincoats and bedding,” said Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future. “We need urgent action at the state and federal levels to solve the PFAS crisis, including by quickly stopping its use in products we wear and use in our homes.”

The report also provides recommendations on what consumers can do and how manufacturers, retailers, and state and federal leaders can act to bring a swift end to the use of toxic “forever chemicals.”

The study comes during a national campaign calling on REI and other retailers to ban PFAS in outdoor apparel and other textiles. Since November 2021, more than 60,000 REI customers have signed petitions and sent e-mails to the REI CEO and Board calling for action on PFAS. In December, a group of more than 100 local, state, and national organizations sent a letter to REI calling on the company to lead the outdoor apparel industry in a bold transition away from the entire class of PFAS.

More information on the study Toxic Convenience: The hidden costs of forever chemicals in stain- and water-resistant products can be found at: https://toxicfreefuture.org/pfas-in-stain-water-resistant-products-study

PFAS BACKGROUND

Chemical companies sell PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) for application to textiles and other products as stain-resistant, water-repellent, and grease-proofing treatments. 

A growing body of scientific research has found links between exposures to PFAS and a wide range of health problems including a weaker immune system, cancer, increased cholesterol levels, pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, reduced fertility, and increased risk of thyroid disease. PFAS are often referred to as “forever” chemicals because they are not known to break down in the environment and can easily move through soil to drinking water. With remarkable persistence and mobility, PFAS have become global pollutants that threaten the health of people and wildlife. 

A 2021 peer-reviewed study by Toxic-Free Future found PFAS in 100% of breast milk samples tested and that newer PFAS build up in people. And, Toxic-Free Future’s latest investigative report revealed that a PFAS manufacturing facility is a major source of both PFAS pollution and ozone-depleting chemicals that contribute to health problems and climate change.

State governments are taking legislative and regulatory actions to phase out PFAS in products to prevent contamination in favor of safer alternatives. For example, laws in ME and WA have given state agencies authority to ban PFAS in a wide range of products. Under WA’s comprehensive Safer Products law, the state is proposing restrictions on PFAS in carpet, rugs, textile furniture and furnishings and the state was first to adopt bans on PFAS in food packaging and firefighting foam. CA, CT, ME, MN, NY, VT, and WA now have laws to phase out PFAS in food packaging. VT and ME adopted bans on PFAS in carpets, rugs, and aftermarket treatments. California has adopted regulations making PFAS in carpet and rugs a priority product and regulations have been proposed for making PFAS treatments for use on textiles and leathers a priority product. CA, CO, CT, IL, ME, NH, NY, and WA have laws that ban the sale and/or use of firefighting foam containing PFAS.

Retailers are increasingly adopting safer chemicals policies to eliminate PFAS in key product sectors, according to the annual Retailer Report Card. Many outdoor and textiles brands have announced policies to reduce and eliminate PFAS. Patagonia has pledged to eliminate all PFAS across its entire product line by 2024. Last year, Polartec announced it was eliminating PFAS in its DWR (durable water repellent) treatments across its line of performance fabrics. Lowe’s and The Home Depot are no longer selling indoor residential carpets or rugs with PFAS, and Lowe’s also committed to stop selling fabric protection sprays with PFAS. In addition, 18 retailers selling food or food packaging have announced steps to reduce or eliminate PFAS in food packaging at their more than 77,000 stores. 

TOXIC-FREE FUTURE

Toxic-Free Future (TFF) is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that advances the use of safer products, chemicals, and practices through science, organizing, advocacy, and consumer engagement to ensure a healthier tomorrow. Mind the Store is a Toxic-Free Future program that challenges retailers to eliminate toxic chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives, and scores major retailers on their safer chemicals policies in an annual Retailer Report Card

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