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A Toxics-Free Future


PFAS “Forever Chemicals” Found in Outerwear and Clothing Sold Globally

Jackets and other clothing from thirteen countries contain toxic chemicals linked to cancer, infertility and other serious health conditions

A study released today by Arnika, IPEN and 13 IPEN member groups and partners found toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals, including globally banned substances in outdoor jackets and clothing purchased from thirteen countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Most of the outdoor jackets were marketed for children and many of the products come into direct contact with skin. PFAS, called “Forever Chemicals” due to their extreme persistence in the environment, are used in clothing and other products to confer stain- and water-resistance. But the study also found jackets and clothing made without PFAS, demonstrating that safer alternatives to the toxic substances are available.

“PFAS are widely used in textiles and people can be exposed when they wear jackets and clothing. It’s especially troubling to find PFAS in children’s products, since children may be more vulnerable to PFAS exposures,” said IPEN’s Global Researcher Jitka Straková, the lead author of the study. “As long as industry continues making PFAS the health threats to our children and families will continue. We need a global ban on PFAS as a group to stop environmental releases of and human exposure to PFAS.”

In the study today, jackets and other clothing sold as water- or stain resistant were purchased from 13 countries:  Germany, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom, Serbia, Montenegro, Kenya, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the U.S. Tests for 58 specific PFAS and for extractable organic fluorine (EOF), a measurement that correlates with the use of any PFAS, were conducted. The study found:

  • Of 72 samples tested, 46 (63.8%) contained PFAS or had EOF levels indicating the presence of PFAS. 
  • Of 56 jackets tested, 35 (62.5%) contained PFAS or had EOF levels indicating the presence of PFAS. 
  • Of 16 clothing items tested (including aprons, T-shirts, swimsuits, a hijab, trousers and other clothing), 11 (68.8%) contained PFAS or had EOF levels indicating the presence of PFAS. 
  • PFOA, a PFAS chemical that is known to be highly toxic and has been banned globally, was the most common PFAS in outdoor jackets, found in 17 products. 
  • PFDA, a chemical that has been restricted under EU rules and recommended for a global ban, was also found in 17 products, including jackets, raincoats, and an apron.  
  • Of the 15 PFAS identified in the analyzed clothing, 6:2 FTOH was measured in the highest concentrations. The presence of FTOHs indicates that polymeric PFAS, i.e. side chain fluorotelomer-based polymers, were used in the products. 
  • Sixteen jackets had PFAS at levels above proposed EU safety limits.

Textiles can be made water- and stain repellent through treatment with a type of PFAS called sidechain fluorotelomer-based polymers (SFPs). SFPs are polymeric PFAS, which the testing methods in our study do not detect. However, we can infer that SFPs were used in certain textiles in the study because SFPs are known to degrade and form PFOA (a globally banned toxic PFAS) and other toxic PFAS that were detected in several samples. Because side-chain fluorinated polymers can degrade into highly toxic PFAS including PFOA during entire life cycle, they should be subject to the same restrictions as other PFAS. Only a universal ban that includes all polymeric PFAS can stop human exposure to PFAS.  

PFAS are highly toxic and studies have associated PFAS exposure with severe adverse health effects, including cancer, impacts on the immune, reproductive, and hormone systems, and other serious conditions. Since most of the products tested for the IPEN study were marketed for children, it is important to note that exposures to children may be especially harmful. A 2022 review by the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that children are more vulnerable to PFAS exposures and “…an association is likely between chronic PFAS exposure in children and medical concerns such as elevated blood cholesterol levels, dyslipidemias, slightly lowered birth weight, and reduced antibody response to certain vaccines/infections.” It is also alarming that 40 peer-reviewed studies from 2017-2022 found PFAS contamination of umbilical cord blood, raising concerns that babies are born with PFAS exposures.

The study also demonstrated that companies can make clothing without PFAS. Twenty-one water- or stain-proof jackets were found without PFAS, including jackets made by North Face and Black Diamond, two companies that have committed to be PFAS-free. According to surveys conducted by the Green Science Policy Institute and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University in the U.S., several other outdoor clothing companies and retailers, including Deuter, Jack Wolfskin, Mammut, ORTOVOX, Polartec, and Vaude have also made this commitment, indicating that clothing can be made without these harmful chemicals (our study did not test products from these brands and thus cannot confirm their commitments).

Arnika and IPEN shared the study results with the clothing companies and asked for their policies on using PFAS but at the time of the release of the report no company had replied. Legislation that requires labeling chemicals in products are needed to give consumers information about the safety of the products they buy.

Some PFAS have been regulated globally, or nationally. Three PFAS and their related substances have been found to be among the most highly toxic chemicals known and are banned globally. But most current approaches look at the thousands of PFAS chemicals one-by-one or in small groups, with each group review taking several years – although some US states have regulated PFAS as a class in some products. However, there are no comprehensive global regulations to protect the environment and human health from all PFAS.

IPEN and their member groups are calling for comprehensive global rules to ban PFAS as a class including polymeric PFAS and for national governments to implement immediate restrictions on the use of PFAS. In addition, governments should produce plans for and fund projects to decontaminate soil and drinking water of communities affected by PFAS pollution.