The highly persistent, toxic chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have been in the news for contaminating drinking water around the globe and threatening the health of people and wildlife.
Now, our research has found these forever chemicals are in outdoor gear and home furnishings sold by major retailers. The new study tested textiles products from 10 major retailers: Amazon; Bed Bath & Beyond; Costco; Dick’s Sporting Goods; Kohl’s; Macy’s; REI; Target; TJX; and Walmart.
We found PFAS in clothing we wear, tablecloths our children eat from and comforters we sleep with — all products where hazardous chemicals have no place. Unfortunately, at least one product from every retailer was found to contain PFAS. Thankfully, alternatives are readily available for retailers and their suppliers.
This use of PFAS in consumer products poses growing reputational and regulatory risks to retailers, as more consumers and states clamor for action on these persistent toxic chemicals.
PFAS leave a toxic trail of pollution from production to use to disposal
When PFAS are used in textiles, they are released into the environment at every stage of the product life cycle from production to use to disposal, exposing consumers, communities, workers and wildlife. These chemicals are often referred to as "forever" chemicals because they are not known to break down in the environment, are highly persistent and mobile and can easily move through the soil to water, contaminating the drinking water of millions of Americans.
As a result of their widespread use and persistence, PFAS are also getting into our bodies. A 2021 peer-reviewed study found PFAS in 100 percent of breast milk samples tested, and that newer PFAS, including those found in textiles, build up in people.
A growing body of scientific research has found links between exposures to PFAS and a wide range of health problems including a weaker immune system, cancer and increased cholesterol levels.
Independent laboratory testing of PFAS
To uncover where PFAS may be found in products sold at retail, we investigated three kinds of commonly used products, purchased from 10 major retailers. We tested for the presence of PFAS in three categories of textile products: outdoor apparel, bedding, and tablecloths and napkins. This builds on previous reports we’ve published investigating PFAS in food packaging at major grocery, fast-food and fast-casual chains.
Toxic chemicals in outdoor gear, bedding, tablecloths and napkins
We found that PFAS are still in wide use in apparel and home furnishings, despite the availability of alternatives:
- PFAS are commonly used for stain and water resistance. The majority (72 percent) of items marketed as stain- or water-resistant contained PFAS. On the other hand, no items without stain or water resistance marketing appeared to contain PFAS.
- Multiple types of consumer products contain PFAS. We detected PFAS in a wide variety of products that included rain jackets, hiking pants, shirts, mattress pads, comforters, tablecloths and napkins.
- No retailer’s product line was PFAS-free. At least one product from each of the 10 retailers contained PFAS.
- Manufacturers have been using a mixture of PFAS that includes compounds banned in other countries. Our testing found not just the newer compounds believed to be the most commonly used but also the older PFAS banned in the European Union and phased out by major U.S. manufacturers. Most PFAS-containing items (74 percent) tested positive for these older PFAS.
- Alternatives to PFAS for stain and water resistance are in use. We found items in each category that were marketed as stain- and/or water-resistant yet appeared to be free of PFAS-based treatments.
Pressure mounting on REI and other retailers to act
The new report, which has received wide media coverage including stories in CNN and The Hill, comes amid a national campaign calling on REI and other retailers to ban PFAS in outdoor apparel and other textiles. Since November, more than 60,000 REI customers have signed petitions and sent emails to the REI CEO and Board calling for action on PFAS. In December, a group of more than 100 local, state and national organizations sent a letter to REI calling on the company to lead the outdoor apparel industry in a bold transition away from the entire class of PFAS.
Recommendations for retailers
We can’t continue to accept the tradeoff of polluting our homes, bodies, air, soil, water and breast milk with persistent, toxic PFAS so that companies can market products as stain- and water-resistant. With the tremendous progress companies have made in the last several years in bringing PFAS-free items to market, the time is now for textile manufacturers and retailers to lead the way to PFAS-free products made with safer alternatives.
Retailers should do the following:
- Set policy. Adopt ambitious public safer chemicals policies that get ahead of the curve and ensure all textile products available for sale are free of PFAS.
- Adopt goals and metrics. Set clear, ambitious public goals with timelines and quantifiable metrics to reduce and eliminate PFAS.
- Prioritize transparency. Require suppliers to provide full disclosure of product ingredients to understand where PFAS may be found in your supply chain.
- Avoid regrettable substitution. Assess any substitute chemicals for hazard using a method such as GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals or ChemFORWARD to ensure that any replacement chemicals are the safest possible, excluding at a minimum GreenScreen Benchmark 1 chemicals.
- Disclose progress. Publicly report on progress to the public on at least an annual basis.
- Stay ahead of and support government regulation. As policies addressing toxic chemicals gain traction in more states and from the Biden administration, retailers must act. Retailers should support state and federal policy reform to advance ingredient transparency, eliminate PFAS and incentivize the development of green-chemistry solutions.
Eliminating PFAS in textiles and other products will help reduce retailers’ chemical footprint, safeguard brand reputation, enhance customer loyalty, and mitigate regulatory and financial risks.
That’s a win-win every sustainability professional can and should get behind.