Scrubbing out PFAS stain resistance on school wear

PFASs in School UniformsFidra’s PFAS Free Uniforms project finds stain resistance could be leaving a lasting mark on the environment.

 

Over the summer holidays many families will be stocking up on school uniforms and hoping they won’t have to shop for uniforms again until next year!  If you are looking for uniforms that will last and keep looking good you might be tempted to opt for ‘stain resistance’ but findings from our latest project PFAS Free Uniforms suggest that ‘stain resistant’ uniforms may not bring the benefits consumers expect and could be harming the environment.

The Problem with PFAS

Stain resistance promises to “fight off dry soil and nasty, unpredictable spills and splashes’’,  “reduce the need for laundering” and “increase the fabric’s usable life”. If a uniform is marketed as stain resistant, it usually means that chemicals have been applied to the material to make the fabric repel water and oil. Many stain resistant finishes use Poly- or Perfluorinated Alkyl Substances (or PFASs), a group of man-made chemicals which are used to make a whole host of products, including food packaging, cosmetics and as water- or oil-repellent coatings on textiles. However, there are growing concerns for the environment as more and more of these synthetic substances leak out during production, use and disposal of these products. PFAS don’t easily break down and have been found in the air and water worldwide and in wildlife including polar bears, whales[i] as well as human blood samples [ii].  PFASs can build up in the tissue or blood of animals where they can cause harm [iii]. Following growing concerns from the scientific community [iv] and restrictions on some PFAS chemicals [v] many companies are phasing out PFAS from their products. Just last week it was announced that H&M and L’Oréal have committed to removing PFAS from their cosmetics. However our analysis of the UK school uniforms market reveals that many department stores, high street shops and independent retailer are still selling uniforms being made using PFAS stain resistance.

Can we resist stain resistance?

Not only are PFAS based stain resistance an environmental concern but it seems they might not deliver the benefits consumers expect.  Results of our survey of school uniform purchasers suggest that stain resistance doesn’t reduce the frequency of washing or mean customers replace clothing less often [vi] . Due to frequent washing stain resistance is lost during the first few months of ownership, so is stain resistance worth it? Scientists working to find PFAS alternatives have advised PFAS only be used where is a “unique and critical” need for them, for example on protective clothing.   As our Project Manager Dr Madeleine Berg explains ‘’From blazers to baking paper PFAS are used in a number of products which all contribute more and more chemical to our environment. Since stain resistance isn’t really providing the benefits consumers would expect and could be causing harm to the environment, we need to ask ourselves, do we really need stain resistant uniforms?’’

While department stores and high shops still stock PFAS based stain resistant uniforms most UK supermarkets have been taking a precautionary approach and phasing out the use of any PFASs from uniforms and other products so their alternatives and non-coated options are readily available. Perhaps Darth Vader was right when he said ‘[stain] resistance is futile’?

What can shoppers do?

Although many department stores and independent retailers still stock PFAS stain resistance, you can find uniforms without PFAS-based stain resistance in most major supermarkets, many of whom have switched to alternatives to PFAS. Unfortunately, little information has been made available about the chemistry of the alternatives used. Ideally you can look for clothing that is free of any added stain-resistance – just check the labels of items before you buy.  Of course second hand uniforms are also a good alternative (they may have had their stain resistance washed off already), as ever reduce, reuse and recycle. Our new website includes all the information you need to help you decide.

 

About Fidra’s PFAS Free Uniforms Project: PFAS Free Uniforms is Fidra’s latest project and aims to stop unnecessary use of chemicals of environmental concern. We use the best available science to identify and understand environmental issues, and develop effective solutions through inclusive and collaborative dialogue with the public, industry and government.  We have surveyed over 600 parents to find out about their uniform buying and washing habits, launched a new website to engage consumers and we are liaising with retailers.  Fidra are partners in POPFREE an international consortium of industry, researchers and NGOs with a shared mission to find alternatives to PFAS use in consumer products. POPFREE plans to evaluate a range of alternatives for their quality and environmental impact and promote these for different consumer products including textiles, paper packaging and cosmetics.

 

[i] Gebbink, W. A., et al. (2016). Observation of emerging per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in Greenland marine mammals. Chemosphere, 144, 2384-2391.

[ii] Monroy R, et al. (2008). Serum levels of perfluoroalkyl compounds in human maternal and umbilical cord blood samples. Environmental Research;108(1):56-62.

[iii] Haukås, M. et al. (2007). Bioaccumulation of per-and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in selected species from the Barents Sea food web. Environmental Pollution, 148(1), 360-371. https://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/13479/20150316/pollution-giving-polar-bears-brain-damage.htm

[iv] Blum, Arlene, et al. “The Madrid statement on poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs).” Environmental health perspectives 123.5 (2015): A107.

[v] PFOA and PFOS are examples PFAS chemicals that are known to have Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic properties and are therefore restricted (PFOS), or due to be restricted (PFOA), under the Stockholm Convention.

[vi] Dinsmore, 2018. Are the potential environmental gains from stain resistant finishes negated by consumer behaviour? Survey analysis and report for Fidra. Available to download online at https://www.pfasfree.org.uk/current-initiatives/research/school-uniform-survey

 

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