A newly launched study on PFAS in textiles and firefighting gear could help manufacturers comply with new regulations and spark the redesign of consumer products, companies, attorneys, and advocates say.
Researchers from Emory University and the Chemical Insights Research Institute (CIRI), part of Underwriters Laboratories Inc., will identify which PFAS are in clothing, furniture, and firefighter gear, how those chemicals get from those products into the body, and what effects they have on human health.
Single studies that explore so many questions about PFAS are uncommon. With so few ways known to measure specific PFAS in products, the lab methods and findings from the study could help manufacturers better understand how they can comply with growing bans.
The ultimate audience, however, “is the consumer who will use these products and unknowingly get exposed,” said Marilyn Black, who leads CIRI’s research group. “Hopefully we’ll get more benign products in the market.”
Without that information, it’s virtually impossible for consumers to know if their clothing and furniture are made with toxic chemicals.
The research team is developing measurement methods and plans to identify specific PFAS in firefighting gear and commonly purchased clothing and furnishings by the end of this year, Black said. Details on the chemicals’ ability to off gas, pass through skin, and cling to dust—which can lead to ingestion—also should be available by the year’s end, and toxicity data should be available by the end of 2024.
The information the study is expected to generate is “a necessary step to achieve safe consumer products in the industry as whole,” said Maria Akerfeldt, chemical compliance and regulatory affairs lead with H&M Group, a multinational clothing company based in Sweden that has been phasing PFAS out of its products for years.
PFAS in Products Bans
The study data and laboratory methods the researchers are developing to identify specific PFAS in textiles could help companies comply with restrictions in Europe, and increasingly US states, of products made with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), policy watchers said in recent interviews.
“There aren’t many studies like this” that trace chemicals from products through entry points into the body to health effects, said Anna Lennquist, a senior toxicologist with ChemSec, a Sweden-based nonprofit that works with companies and policymakers to spur the substitution of safer chemicals for toxic ones.
The information and laboratory-detection methods expected to be developed could help manufacturers comply with regulations that require regular testing for PFAS in the goods they make, she said.
The European Chemicals Agency released last month a proposed phaseout of PFAS in most products. The rule is expected to enter into force by 2025.
In the US, Maine’s 2021 law to phase out non-essential uses of PFAS
Narrower product bans of PFAS in food packaging sold in California and New York also kicked in this year. Under a Colorado law targeting a wide range of products that becomes effective Jan. 1, sales of outdoor furnishings and furniture with intentionally added PFAS will be banned as of 2027.
Manufacturers will have to follow new rules, and yet they often don’t know which chemicals are in materials they buy, said Scarlette Tapp, executive director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, whose members include La-Z-Boy Inc. and Williams-Sonoma Inc.
What’s It Made of?
The study’s data could help as the council expand its “What’s it Made of” initiative to help the industry avoid harmful chemicals most commonly found in furnishings, Tapp said. The program aims to encourage furnishing manufacturers to get chemical-content information from suppliers so they can innovate and reduce harmful compounds.
Chemical-content knowledge differs within textile industry sectors, said Lennquist, the toxicologist with ChemSec.
Some sectors, like firefighting gear and waterproof clothing manufacturers, likely know their textiles could have PFAS, because of the public and scientific attention those products have received, she said. But companies making clothes where PFAS provide breathability or other properties are less likely to know the textiles they buy are treated with them.
H&M, the Nudie Jeans Co., and other manufacturers along with ChemSec urged European Commissioners in a letter last year to figure out “how to best incentivize chemical suppliers to share full information on chemical content and hazardous properties.”
If the newly launched study increases consumer knowledge that could drive market change, said Jonsara Ruth, a Sustainable Furnishings Council board member and associate professor at Parsons School of Design. Once consumers learn what’s in their home’s furniture, carpets, and other textiles, they could start to demand safer alternatives, she said.
Litigation could be affected as well. Details on how PFAS in firefighters gear move from textiles into the body will be particularly interesting, said Franklin Bryan Brice Jr., whose firm, the Law Offices of F. Bryan Brice Jr., represents firefighters suing PFAS and gear manufacturers.
The lack of such evidence makes it harder for plaintiffs’ attorneys to prove someone’s injury could have resulted from exposure to particular products.
Manufacturers may have done these types of studies, but that information isn’t public, Brice said.
The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) hopes the data from the study will provide more evidence to change national standards that require firefighters’ gear to be made with PFAS, said Neil McMillan, IAFF’s director of science and research.
IAFF is leading a nationwide campaign to change that requirement. The National Fire Protection Association, which sets the standard, voted against a revision in 2021, but is revisiting the possibility.
To see the latest updates on state-level PFAS regulations and legislation, check out Bloomberg Law’s PFAS State Activity Tracker here.
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