Fashion giant H&M Group and Danish retailer Coop are joining a call to action to end the use of harmful PFAS chemicals in products and supply chains.

The corporate initiative by chemical expert NGO ChemSec urges policy makers to regulate PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) efficiently, without the possibility for manufacturers to simply swap one PFAS chemical for an unregulated “cousin.”

It also wants the chemical industry to put money into innovation and develop safer alternatives to PFAS for all kinds of products; a recognition that PFAS are a major health and environmental problem; and a serious commitment to end all non-essential PFAS uses in products and supply chains.

PFAS is a chemical family consisting of almost 5,000 industrially produced chemicals that provide properties such as non-stick, water repellency and anti-grease to many types of products, including outdoor gear.

The industrial use of PFAS has been so prevalent in the last decades that today 99% of every human, including foetuses, have measurable levels of PFAS in their bloodstreams, ChemSec says.

The group adds: “What is worrying is that human epidemiological studies have found associations between PFAS exposure and a number of health disorders, including various cancers, lowered birth weights and negative effects on the immune system.”

The NGO goes on to explain: “The single biggest problem with PFAS is that, with very few exceptions, they are perfectly legal to use. This means that the brands and retailers who want to stop it from being used as ingredients in their products have very limited ways of communicating this in the global supply chain. As long as there is not a restriction in place, suppliers will continue to use these very effective chemicals in manufacturing.”

Anne-Sofie Bäckar, executive director at ChemSec, adds: “It’s obvious that business as usual is not an option. But change will not come easy – it will require policy makers to take some uncomfortable decisions.”

Growing awareness of the risks of PFAs has seen a number of brands – particularly in the outdoor industry – pledge to phase out the use of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).

However, findings from a three-year EU life cycle assessment study into the effect fluorine-based product alternatives for textile uses recently revealed they may be no safer than their original counterparts.