Toxic Convenience: The hidden costs of forever chemicals in stain- and water-resistant products
The harms from PFAS, the extremely large class of fluorinated chemicals found in drinking water, indoor and outdoor air, household dust, breast milk, and the blood of nearly every U.S. resident, are well known.* They include reduced immune response, cancer, damage to the liver and kidney, and other serious impacts to health. Less well known are the many kinds of products—items we use in our everyday lives—that continue to contain these chemicals, despite the abundance of evidence that they are harmful.
For this study, we sampled three categories of textile products to learn more about the extent of PFAS use: outdoor apparel, tablecloths and napkins, and bedding. This research updates previous studies that have analyzed outerwear for PFAS and provides new information on the presence of PFAS in home furnishings. In these types of products, PFAS may be used as surface treatments and/or as membranes laminated to fabric, providing stain and water resistance. For example, outerwear may contain a PFAS-based membrane, a surface treatment on the outer surface of the garment (often termed a durable water repellent), or both. Other products, such as tablecloths, are likely treated only with a surface treatment to provide stain repellency.
Unfortunately, these uses of PFAS leave a toxic trail of pollution that begins with manufacturing of the PFAS membrane and surface treatments, continues as treatments are applied to fabric and made into garments and indoor furnishings, enters homes and workplaces as finished products are sold and used, and ends with widespread environmental contamination from landfills and incinerators after disposal.
Manufacturing plants that make PFAS are well-known creators of PFAS pollution hot spots. When it comes to textiles, that means the manufacture of the surface treatments applied to fabric. But in addition to the PFAS surface treatments used on many textiles, some outdoor apparel also contains a PFAS-based membrane, a layer that makers laminate to the inside of the jacket fabric to help create a waterproof yet breathable garment. With its many tiny holes, the microporous membrane serves to keep rain droplets from crossing the fabric from the outside while allowing water vapor to escape from the inside. Sadly, the manufacture of the type of PFAS used for these membranes, as well as of the surface treatments for textiles and other products, has contaminated drinking water for communities around the globe. These include at least 69,000 residents of the Ohio Valley in Ohio and West Virginia who drank water contaminated by DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia (now operated by the DuPont spinoff Chemours. People who lived in water districts closest to the plant had the highest blood levels of PFOA, a PFAS used as a processing aid to manufacture Teflon® and found in diverse products made at the plant such as surface treatments for textiles and paper. PFOA emissions to air and to the Ohio River during decades of PFAS manufacture in Parkersburg contaminated groundwater used for public and private drinking water wells.
Beginning in 2006, the eight primary U.S. makers of PFAS entered into an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce PFOA emissions. Some have since switched to other fluorinated processing aids such as GenX to make Teflon® and related plastics, creating new contamination problems. For example, in 2016, EPA and university scientists from North Carolina found GenX in high concentrations in a drinking water intake from the Cape Fear River downstream of the Chemours manufacturing plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This part of the Cape Fear River provides drinking water for more than 250,000 North Carolina residents.
Factories that apply PFAS to textiles
Textile mills typically apply finishing chemicals including PFAS water- and stain-resistance treatments by immersing the fabric in a solution, using rollers to remove excess liquid, then curing with heat. This process provides opportunities for PFAS to pollute water and air, as the excess liquid becomes contaminated wastewater and the application process results in air emissions of volatile PFAS. Thus, textile mills can also serve as local sources to create contamination hotspots: one in-depth study of a textile mill in China found elevated levels of PFAS in the factory effluent, as well as in the indoor air, indicating pollution of surface water as well as workers’ exposure to PFAS. Exposure of workers at this mill to volatile PFAS was estimated at about 100,000 times that of the general Western population.
Once treated, textiles emit PFAS over the course of their lifetimes. PFAS are applied to the surface of textiles in a form known as side-chain polymers, which degrade over time to releases volatile PFAS into the environment. As a result, indoor air in homes has been found to have PFAS concentrations tens to hundreds of times higher than outdoor air. These volatile PFAS have been found at even higher concentrations in retail stores that sell outerwear, and laboratory studies have measured significant ongoing emissions of PFAS from outdoor apparel. People are also exposed to PFAS when they accumulate in indoor dust, and potentially from touching treated items. Research using artificial saliva and sweat indicates that persistent PFAS, especially the newer, more water-soluble compounds, can move directly from products to the user. Limited information is available on absorption of PFAS through the skin, but preliminary information indicates persistent PFAS such as PFOA can move through the skin. This exposure route would be especially relevant for textiles like bedding, apparel, napkins, and car seats.
Researchers studying textiles have found strong evidence that the PFAS surface treatments break down over time and that they are a source of PFAS to water after laundering and to landfill leachate after disposal. For example, researchers artificially weathered outdoor apparel and tested fabric for the concentrations of volatile and persistent PFAS before and after the weathering. They found that the surface treatments appeared to degrade in the weathering process, as volatile and persistent PFAS increased in concentration up to 100-fold. Similarly, when researchers subjected treated fabric from car seats to ultraviolet radiation to simulate the effects of sun exposure, fabric concentrations of persistent PFAS such as PFHxA and PFOA increased.
When PFAS are present in apparel and washable home furnishings, they leave our homes in our laundry water. In an experiment simulating laundering of treated jackets and pants, PFAS were detected in laundry water at relatively high concentrations. PFAS in laundry water from households are thus likely to constitute a significant source of persistent PFAS to wastewater treatment plants and to waterways, since they do not fully degrade in the wastewater treatment process. Another experiment measured the amount of PFAS-based surface treatment in microplastic fibers released from outdoor jackets during washing. After simulating home laundering (2 to 15 washes) of outdoor jackets treated with PFAS-containing durable water repellent, the researchers measured the amount of fibers released and estimated the amount of PFAS released along with them at up to 2,064 pounds per year in the European Union.
End of Life
Disposal of used PFAS-treated apparel and home textiles in landfills creates a long-term source of PFAS to the environment as the surface treatments break down over time into persistent, mobile PFAS. These PFAS can then leach from the landfill, contaminating the approximately 16 billion gallons of water leaching from U.S. landfills each year. A yearly total of about 1,300 pounds of PFAS has been estimated to contaminate landfill leachate in the U.S. In Michigan, the U.S. state that has done the most extensive testing for PFAS in groundwater, landfills are by far the most common source of contamination and are associated with 58 contaminated sites. Washington state has estimated that 2,066 metric tons, or 4.5 million pounds, of PFAS in treated textiles are disposed of in landfills in the state every year.
As a result of PFAS emissions from chemical and product manufacturing, during product use, and after disposal, the extremely persistent PFAS have become ubiquitous global contaminants. PFAS have been detected in rivers, oceans, air near cities as well as in remote areas, and even on Mt. Everest.[9, 24, 25]PFAS contaminate fish and wildlife and their food web around the world, from beluga whales to sea otters, orcas and polar bears.[26-31] And this extensive environmental pollution has reached people, with PFAS contaminating blood and breast milk in people around the globe.[32-36]
*In this report, we define PFAS using the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development definition, found at https://www.oecd.org/chemicalsafety/portal-perfluorinated-chemicals/