The dangerous chemicals in outdoor and winter gear

From ToxicLeaks

Making outdoor and winter gear waterproof is turning out to be an environmental and health hazard. And the market leaders like Patagonia or The North Face, under the pressure of big chemical companies such as DuPont, are not doing everything they should to make their products safe.

Outdoor and winter gear is full of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical dangerous for the environment and human health[edit | edit source]

The fabric used to make outdoor and winter gear has a lot of upsides, it keeps us warm and dry, but the way it's made is terribly dangerous for the environment and our health. In order to produce fabric that can repel water and not absorb it, winter gear manufacturers use perfluorocarbons (PFCs), the chemicals found in non-stick cookware for instance. The problem is that some of it escapes during production and ends up either in the atmosphere or in wastewater, and stays there for a really long time, which has many negative effects. This was evidenced by the lawsuit of a farming family from West Virginia that started in 1999 against DuPont who had built a waste dump in the neighboring lands. And what kind of chemical was poured in the dump ? PFOA, the worst kind of PFC. The cattle of the family got sick and died. Forest animals as well.

And they soon discovered the adverse effects of PFOA on human health because the family began suffering from symptoms like wheezing and hacking. Scientists looked into it, and, sure enough, they found that even small amounts of PFOA could do serious harm to human health. A study led by Philippe Grandjean from Harvard and Richard Clapp of the University of Massachusetts realized that there was PFOA in 94 water systems from 27 states and that this was exposing 6.5 million Americans to the chemical. Furthermore, they estimated that the safe amount of PFOA in the water is about 0.001 parts per billion. That's 400 times lower than the rules set by the EPA that seems to have grossly underestimated the problem, probably influenced by DuPont's lobbying ! This problem prompted the EPA to ask chemical manufacturers like DuPont to eliminate PFOA from their supply chain. However, a recent study shows that the lethal chemical is still lurking.

Policies to reduce PFOA haven't succeeded[edit | edit source]

To address the issue the EPA set the major chemical companies the goal of eliminating dangerous chemicals like PFOA from the market in order to mitigate environmental and health hazards. And big companies like DuPont or 3M claim to have phased out PFOA. If this were true, it should have led to the disappearance of the chemical in outdoor or winter gear. However, when Greenpeace tested a wide range of outdoor gear in 2015, it found that PFOA was “still widely present” in products from very famous brands like Patagonia, The North Face or Mammut. So obviously the problem has not been solved because chemicals are clearly still being used to produce this gear, which means that important amounts of chemicals were released when it was produced and that substantial traces of PFOA remain on the products. This points to the failure of the EPA's soft approach and confirms that when dealing with big corporations like DuPont, asking politely is never enough. The only thing big bullies understand is force.

Outdoor and winter gear producers claim to be switching to new chemicals, but the new ones are just as bad[edit | edit source]

Indeed, most of the companies whose products had PFOA claimed that they were currently phasing out the chemical and that their newest products no longer had it. For instance, The North Face insists that its spring 2015 line was made responsibly and without PFOA. The latter might be true but the former most definitely isn't. What happened is that these manufacturers just switched from PFOA to another PFC with a six-carbon backbone, called C6. Mammot contends that this new chemical is perfectly safe and that producing its gear with C6 is “responsible”. However, scientists strongly disagree. As David Andrews, Environmental Working Group senior scientist put it : "the C6 chemicals don't seem to be the magic coating for your clothing that you're looking for". As it turns out, this chemical also stays for a long while in the environment. And many scientists suspect all PFCs of being toxic for the environment and people's health. In 2014, several hundred scientists signed the “Madrid Statement” that highlighted the risks inherent to all PFCs and that called to limit the use of these chemicals. According to David Andrews : "It took decades to show how bad PFOA is." C6 could therefore turn out to be nearly as bad and still be widely used before anybody realizes it.

Even if it's not as bad as PFOA, it seems to be less effective than PFOA as a water repellent, as Patagonia's website tells us : "the shorter-chain structure also tends to perform less effectively in repellency tests". Which means that in order to achieve the same degree of waterproofing, manufacturers must use more C6 than they did PFOA. And it's back to square one, because even though the chemical might be less harmful than PFOA when similar amounts are used, if production requires bigger amounts of C6, the harm to the environment and people's health will stay the same. Of course, this is perfect for chemical companies like DuPont ! They get to still produce the chemicals, which are quite close to PFOA, they get to sell even larger amounts and, icing on the cake, they can highlight that they are helping achieve “responsible” production, and that they are therefore working towards the common good. This is typical greenwashing. Mediocre solutions that are only marginally better than the terrible alternatives, and that are still used by big corporations to appear as environmental heroes.

Big corporations are neglecting the safest solutions[edit | edit source]

Basically, outdoor and winter gear manufacturers are saying that they are doing the best they can. For instance The North Face claims that it is currently researching durable water repellent but in the meantime using C6 is the best alternative. Is that really true ? Is C6 the best solution available ? As it happens a new solution has been invented by a company called Nikwax. Their product is a PFC free waterproofing gel that you spread on a jacket before putting into the wash. And it makes it waterproof. A small British company, Páramo, went ahead and partnered up with Nikwax. Now they are the only outdoor gear manufacturers to have completely PFC free products. And what they make is quite as efficient as the gear made using unsafe chemicals.

David Bacci, an Italian climber, used Paramo gear while climbing peaks in Patagonia. And he reported that the clothing “worked perfectly” and that he felt “dry and warm in extreme conditions”. So clearly PFCs are not the only solutions on the market. However, big chemical companies like DuPont would stand to lose huge market shares if manufacturers switched to safer, PFC free waterproofing methods. And that's probably why there is so much pressure to keep using these hazardous chemicals even though they are known to be harmful to the environment and people's health. The only way out of this is applying our own pressure, and forcing the manufacturers to forsake unsafe PFCs and rely on the durable waterproofing methods that are available.