Questions are being asked about the safety of PTFE in water-repellent fabrics

Questions are being asked about the safety of PTFE in water-repellent fabrics

As concerns are raised over the safety of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) in the production of water repellent functional textiles, a number of brands are promoting environmentally friendly alternatives for performance apparel.

Several sports brands - including the German brands Pyua and Vaude, and the Swiss brand Zimtstern - produce ranges featuring the new SympaTex membrane, according to Performance Apparel Markets, published by Textiles Intelligence.

The company SympaTex is now heavily promoting the fact that its membranes are 100% biodegradable and completely free of PTFE.

On the SympaTex website, the company proclaims: "Many companies use PTFE for the production of water repellent functional textiles. PTFE has been criticised increasingly in recent years, however, because the fluorine compounds that are used for producing it are suspected of being harmful or even cancer-causing.

"Perfluorinated compounds can also be released into the environment during the burning or depositing of PTFE. There, they can accumulate due to their long-life cycle. The SympaTex membrane is PTFE free. It is made of polyether and polyester and therefore represents no health hazard."

The SympaTex membrane is Bluesign certified, and consists only of oxygen, carbon and hydrogen. Furthermore, its production route allows for a realistic recycling system to be put in place.

Vaude has committed to bringing all of its products in line with Bluesign certification, and sees its alliance with SympaTex as critical to this objective.

According to the chief executive officer (CEO) of Vaude, Antje von Dewitz, the company's goal is to become "the most eco-friendly outdoor manufacturer in Europe. In order to do so we need partners like SympaTex who are pulling in the same direction."

Pyua received a 2010 ISPO Eco Responsibility Award for its Climate 2L padded ski jacket and pants. Like all of the apparel sold under this brand name, the outfit is made exclusively from recycled material. Also, the outfit is itself fully recyclable.

According to a statement from the ISPO Awards judging panel, "Pyua, still one of the younger brands, continues to implement a significant and targeted sustainability concept...Consumers can look forward to a fashionable product with an attractive look, guaranteeing the highest level of functionality, as well as skin tolerance, thanks to the use of PTFE-free SympaTex membranes."

Further damage may be caused to the reputation of PTFE by a statement issued by Helly Hansen in connection with the launch of a new collection called Ekolab.

Under the title "Helly Hansen Ekolab Collection Protects from Bad Weather While Protecting the Planet", the company has issued a statement warning that "global warming means less winter play".

More specifically, the company boasts that - in addition to its performance attributes - the protective membrane in its men's and women's Ekolab North Marker Jacket and Pants is polyurethane-based "and eliminates the need for environmentally damaging PTFE typically used by other brands".

Undaunted by the negative attention which PTFE has received, W L Gore - which uses expanded PTFE (ePTFE) in almost all of its proprietary processes, and holds over 2,000 patents on the material and its uses worldwide - has recently introduced a new fabric, called Gore-Tex Active Shell, and claims that it is the most breathable waterproof material it has produced to date.

Active Shell fabrics are due to become commercially available in autumn 2011 in the ranges of a number of leading brands, including: Arc'teryx, Berghaus, The North Face, Haglöfs and Mountain Equipment.

W L Gore has not commented specifically on the allegations against PTFE but it does support the aim of the EU's REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) legislation, which is to "ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment while enhancing competitiveness and innovation".

Given that REACH has been criticised in many quarters for being far too stringent, it is reassuring that ePTFE and all of the chemical components employed in its production comply.

It must be emphasised that the evidence against PTFE remains inconclusive and unproven. But growing ecological concern and the ability of competitors to proclaim their eco-credentials could be the Achilles' heel of PTFE and its users - unless the latter can come up with some more positive eco-statements which are credible and sustainable.

"Fast track: should questions about the safety of PTFE worry the performance apparel industry?" was published by the global information company Textiles Intelligence in issue No 35 of Performance Apparel Markets.