Some brands, like L.L. Bean, Lululemon, Patagonia, etc. have vowed to steadily remove forever chemicals out of their production processes over the next few years.

Laws and regulations against PFAS such as labels, restrictions or disclosures, are being enacted in states like California, Maine and New York. It is important to note PFAS is not just present in the textile industry for the US, but is an industry-wide and global problem affecting the health and well-being of humans and the environment.

Despite negative effects surfacing and brand willingness to change, there are still complexities when it comes to replacing PFAS. This group of toxic chemicals is known to be utilised within the textile and apparel industry due to its ability to withstand stains and its water-resistant quality. But recently brands are beginning to transition away and look to cleaner and safer alternatives that match PFAS performance capabilities and surpass the chemical in sustainability.

A report from Toxic-Free Future found traces of PFAS in 72% of home furnishings and clothing products. As noted, brands have been using PFAS for its performance, liquid-repellency or flame-retardancy. However, as harmful findings continue to surface, manufacturers and brands must look to alternative solutions in order to continue supplying consumers with safe yet durable products.

Health and environmental implications of PFAS

Traces of forever chemicals have been found in numerous products including, but not limited to, raincoats, reusable underwear and hiking pants. Since PFAS is being found in fabrics, it is possible for the chemical to enter the human body due to its direct contact with skin. Aside from the textile industry, PFAS have been detected in our water, air, food packaging, fish and soil, posing a problem for countless other industries as well. Reports have been repeatedly finding that exposure to PFAS can result in cancer, infertility, high cholesterol, a weaker immune system, high blood pressure, and numerous other health concerns.

Consumers are not only exposed by directly wearing products with PFAS, but through each stage of its life cycle: production, use and disposal. Manufacturers that use forever chemicals are huge contributors to PFAS pollution and climate change, as manufacturing facilities have been found to taint the air, water, soil and surrounding communities. Products made with PFAS eventually are disposed of into landfills, which leads to pollution of the chemical in the soil and air depending on how it decomposes.

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Importance of regulation against toxic chemicals

Over the past few years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken action and implemented new rules in order to regulate the use of PFAS and protect humans and the environment from its effects. In the summer of 2022, the EPA proposed rules that would increase transparency around releasing harmful chemicals and hold polluters accountable for cleaning up their contamination. Later that year, they placed emphasis on PFAS reporting, which no longer allowed facilities to avoid documenting PFAS use.

Legislative and regulatory actions are still being put into effect, where at the beginning of 2023, the EPA proposed a rule that would not allow anyone to resume manufacturing, processing or use of approximately 300 PFAS chemicals that hadn’t yet been made or used, known as “inactive PFAS.” Before regulations, these inactive chemicals would have been utilised and then released into the environment, harming surrounding communities. Additionally, prior to these rules, companies could use PFAS without reporting or review from the EPA.

Finding alternative solutions that surpass PFAS capabilities

The transition to sustainable solutions can become much easier as society is made aware of why PFAS are used and what negative effects the chemicals have. PFAS have protective qualities that are effective for the textile and apparel industry, but now as safer alternatives are being produced, brands and manufacturers must take the leap. Now more than ever, consumers value environmentally friendly and safe products and processes and avoid brands they know are not conscious of their health or the environment.

Innovative companies are now executing solutions that are PFAS, plastic and fluorine-free. There are water-based solutions on the market now that are designed to offer liquid-repellency, stain, fade and mildew resistance while maintaining breathable qualities and are even incorporating added UV protection. Coating solutions for products also allow the product to maintain its look and feel and extend the product’s longevity. These are applicable for substrates such as cotton, linen denim, nylon, spandex and more. Due to these cleaner chemistries, manufacturers should have no reason not to remove PFAS completely from their processes.

However, some manufacturers remain hesitant about switching over to PFAS-free because they’ve relied on the chemical’s high-performing qualities. PFAS has been the go-to choice due to its ability to offer high thermal stability or liquid-repellency for a product. Manufacturers can now access safe coatings specifically designed to offer liquid-repellency, stain-resistance, fade-resistant, mildew-resistance and more without losing softness or breathability.

Now is the time for change

Clothing, outdoor gear, tablecloths, curtains and more can now be produced without utilising toxic chemicals. Manufacturers and brands must move beyond past practices as consumers and society as a whole are increasingly aware of PFAS’ detrimental causes such as pollution and health problems. Every industry must pledge their commitment to sustainability and cleaner chemistries in order to protect their products, but more importantly the Earth. Clean and safe advanced material solutions and coatings are higher-performing and eco-friendly, achieving consumer expectations and meeting evolving regulatory standards.

About the author: David Zamarin is the founder & CEO of Impermea Materials (formally DetraPel), an advanced materials company based in Massachusetts. David’s passion and urgency to disrupt the growing trajectory of global challenges, directly caused by irresponsible manufacturing, is the driving force for the company’s philosophy and purpose. David and his team are committed to developing innovative formulas that reduce environmental impacts and negative health effects by synthesizing and manufacturing the highest-performing barrier solutions, which are PFAS-free, fluorine-free and plastic-free.