What are PFAS?
PFAS stands for Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl Substances. These are toxic and non-biodegradable chemicals. They consist of fluorinated groups (F) and alkyl groups (e.g. CnH2n+1). The hydrogen atoms of the alkyl groups (carbon chains of different lengths) are fully (perfluorinated compounds) or partially (polyfluorinated compounds) substituted by fluorine atoms.
PFAS are called "Forever chemicals" because they are very persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative in the food chain, i.e. the body absorbs substances such as pesticides or other chemicals at a rapid rate. They are therefore on the 'dirty dozen' list of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which groups together
endocrine disruptors. These substances do not exist in nature but are produced in chemical plants. Their toxicity comes mainly from fluorine. At normal temperatures, fluorine is in the form of difluorine (F2), a pale yellow diatomic gas that is highly toxic and extremely corrosive. Fluorine causes very severe burns on contact with the skin, mucous membranes, and bones. Many fluorinated gases, freons, are used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have been banned because of their contribution to the ozone hole. In its solid state, fluorine is found in natural mineral compounds such as fluorites, fluoroapatites and cryolites.
How do PFAS toxics end-up in our soil?
PFAS are found in everyday products such as clothing, catering packaging, fire-fighting foam, paints, nail polish, cleaning products and in pans in the form of Teflon, a non-stick coating.
These substances are formed through industrial waste. The alkyl groups and fluorinated groups mix and end up in the wastewater, because for the companies responsible, storage remains expensive. Another source of PFAS is the GenX technology. GenX is a technology used by the chemical company DuPont Chemours in Dordrecht. The production of fluorine-containing polymers, such as polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon), which are highly heat-resistant (up to 205°C). These polymers are carcinogenic and reprotoxic (reduced fertility in humans).
There are about 600 PFAS substances and the best known is PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonic acid) produced mainly by the American chemical group 3M. BASF, BAYER, INEOS and others also produce and use PFAS.
In Belgium, the big scandal is PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonic acid, chemical formula) produced by 3M in Zwijndrecht. PFOS, which is highly toxic, is the main ingredient in Scotchgard, a water- and grease-repellent, stain-resistant textile additive. It is used to clean carpets, upholstery and any fabric material.
3M does not take precautions for the treatment of its industrial waste. They do not guarantee the health and safety of the inhabitants near their factory either. The consequences are very serious and the health officials and politicians of this region started a late and ineffective investigation. After a few weeks of stoppage, 3M resumed production without giving any information or communication about the precautions or improvements taken in relation to PFAS.
PFOS has contaminated soil, plants, drinking water and consequently humans. The concentration of PFAS is not supposed to exceed 1 microgram per 1 kg of material.
The use of PFAS in textiles
Due to their hydrophobic (water repellent), lipophobic (grease and oil repellent) and dirt repellent properties, PFAS are used in many garments. For example:
1- PFASAs and PFOSAs: (perfluoroalkane sulphonamide and perfluorooctane sulphonamide) are present on clothing to protect surfaces from dust and as an antistatic agent on work clothes (in areas where there is a risk of explosion).
2- PFAI (perfluoroalkyl iodide), which belongs to the family of fluorinated telomers, is used as an anti-stain and water-repellent (water-resistant) product. As it degrades, it turns into PFCA (perfluorocaroxylic acid), a very dangerous and persistent substance in the environment.
3- FTOHs (fluoro telomer alcohols) are water and oil repellent. They are hydrophobic and lipophobic. They are also anti-adhesive agents. They are mainly used for firemen's outfits and winter sportswear.
4- PFCAs (perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids) are used against stains and for waterproofing.
5- PTFE (polytetrafluorethylene), also known as Teflon, is very waterproof. It is used in bullet-proof waistcoats and in some sportswear.
6- PFBS (perfluorooctane sulphonic acid) is used as an antistatic and fire retardant in firefighters' clothing as it is highly resistant to fire and flammable solvents.
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The health effects of PFAS
PFAS substances are not easily biodegradable (almost indestructible) and remain for years in the soil or water. They move quickly through the environment, making it difficult to contain their spread. If sewage and/or chemical waste (from these substances or their synthesis) is not properly treated in adequate sewage treatment plants, it will go directly into the soil and into the groundwater. As a result, humans will be infected and the consequences are very harmful. According to several toxicologists, PFAS can cause serious health effects:
Increased cholesterol levels
Attacking the liver
Delayed development of the mammary gland
Low birth weight
Inflammatory bowel disease
Tons of clothes containing PFAS are thrown away every month. There is a real danger especially in Africa, South America and some Asian countries. There, controls, legislation and technological means to treat this industrial waste are almost non-existent. The (cheap) workers do not have gloves, masks or protective glasses. Many of these countries already have drought problems and even if there is water, it is contaminated.
Discarded clothing, when decomposed by moisture or heat or burnt, releases toxic components:
Ozone (O3 ) which is an oxidant that is extremely harmful to the lungs, kidneys, brain and eyes. It can also burn plants.
Hydrofluoric acid (HF) which is an aqueous solution that is very corrosive to the respiratory tract. This solution can cause very severe burns. It passes through the dermal wall into the bones and blood vessels and binds with calcium in the blood and bones. As a result, it reaches the heart.
In Europe, analyses show that contamination is everywhere. Professor De Boer attests that the discharges of the factories in the Rhone (in France), have a significant amount of PFAS. For tap water: all tap water samples from the fields near the Rhone exceed the standard (100 ng/l) for the 20 PFAS tested. More than 200,000 people are affected. Of the soil samples collected in the stadium and vegetable garden near the plant, 5 PFAS exceeded the Dutch standard for soil quality.
In the air samples, two components were found in very large quantities compared to the others: 6:2 FTS and PFHA, used by companies on the site.
For Professor De Boer the conclusion is clear: 'We can therefore conclude that the entire area from which the samples were taken is severely contaminated with PFAS.
How do you know if your clothes contain PFAS?
Waterproof clothing protects us from the rain, but this protection comes at a cost.
PFAS (stain and water resistant) may be present in clothing, children's products, including those labelled 'non-toxic' and 'green'. This is according to a recent US study. The customer should be aware of this:
Be informed, especially when buying outdoor equipment (camping tents and backpacks) and choose clothing that does not have Gore-Tex or Teflon technology.
Beware of all fabrics and garments that have labels such as: 'waterproof', 'stain repellent' or 'dirt repellent'
Favour the purchase of second-hand clothes.
Wash new clothes before wearing them.
Choose clothes with a short list of ingredients, without "PFAS" or "fluorinated ingredients" and certified "Ecocert".
Use the simplest possible cleaning and maintenance products: white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda.
Checking the website of your branded product is the best way to find out if your garment is PFAS-free. If no information is available, contact customer service. Don't be fooled by labels or promises that a product is "PFOA-free" or "PFOS-free".
We need to make an effort to know what we are buying for ourselves and our children by reading specialist clothing articles like ECOTEXTILE News. The chemical management specialists Bluesign, ZDHC and Oeko-Tex have all confirmed their commitment to phasing out the use of PFAS.
A coalition of environmental groups recently urged Bluesign, ZDHC and Oeko-Tex to "quickly update all certifications to ban the use of all PFAS compounds in the manufacture of products".
Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway have formally announced their intention to submit a proposal for a restriction on PFAS to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). This is a first step towards a European ban on PFAS. There are regulations banning PFASs in the production of clothing, but manufacturers continue to use them and we see advertisements on TV: t-shirts (more breathable), waterproof coats and shoes, by sportsmen and singers.
Some researchers have suggested that the use of PFAS in water-repellent garments is over-engineered, and comparable performance can be achieved by using specific (less toxic) silicone and hydrocarbon-based finishes.
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