UBA tests outdoor jackets: Weather-proofing is harmful to waters

Too many environmentally harmful chemicals in outdoor jackets

Wanderer mit einer roten Regenjacke und einem Rucksack läuft durch einen Wald bei RegenClick to enlarge
Weatherproof jackets are practical – but, please, without chemicals harmful to environment & health!
Source: Maridav / Fotolia.com

The waterproofed layer of weatherproof functional jackets releases environmentally harmful chemicals which contain fluoride. These chemicals are put into the environment, for example by washing. Waste water treatment facilities cannot degrade these chemicals, and thus they are released into rivers, seas and groundwater, and ultimately accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals. The Federal Environment Agency tested 15 weatherproof functional jackets and five waterproofing agents made of perfluoroalkyl- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). The objective of the study was to determine the emissions of PFASs from jackets and the associated risk for man and the environment. Maria Krautzberger, President of the Federal Environment Agency, said: "The waterproofing agents unfortunately do not stay in the jackets and instead evaporate into the air or are channelled to waste water treatment plants as a result of washing, from where they enter water bodies. Although the jackets release relatively low levels of PFASs to the environment compared to other sources, the question remains whether this type of waterproofing is necessary." The Federal Environment Agency is appealing for stricter regulation of perfluoroalkyl- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. A number of clothing manufacturers have already opted for waterproofing agents which are free of these chemicals.

PFASs were traced in all 15 tested jackets, which are released to the environment as a result of washing and outgassing. The chemicals are persistent in the environment, are transported around the world and are bioaccumulative. Some PFASs are proven to be toxic for reproduction.

Perfluoroalkyl- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are commonly used in jackets, trousers or sports clothing to make them waterproof and stain-resistant. These chemicals have been traced in the environment and in organisms around the world, including in rivers, oceans, the deep sea, groundwater, in human blood and even in polar bears. They do not degrade in the environment and are transported instead on air and water pathways to regions as remote as the Arctic. Organisms are exposed to PFASs through the air, water and food intake, and they bioaccumulate. The new study done on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency illustrates the extent of PFASs pollution caused by weatherproof jackets.

The concentrations of PFASs in jackets varied widely, ranging from 0.03 to 718 microgrammes per square metre of textile (µg/m²). Twenty different PFASs were detected, of which several exceeded a concentration of 1 µg/m². This is the limit value fixed by law which has up to now applied only to banned perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). This value can serve as orientation in the evaluation of other PFASs.

Fortunately, none of the jackets tested had concentrations of PFOS above this value. On the other hand, there were relatively high concentrations of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a Substance of Very High Concern. The highest recorded concentration was 4.6 µg/m². The amounts of certain PFOA precursors and other PFASs were striking, reaching concentrations of up to 698 µg/m². They evaporate into the air quickly and are degraded in the environment as persistent PFASs such as PFOA. Most of the waterproofing agents which were also tested in the course of the present study contained these volatile compounds, with measured values of up to 225 microgrammes per millilitre (µg/ml).

The UBA has already proposed the registration of 6 PFASs on the REACH Candidate List. The REACH Regulation stipulates that Substances of Very High Concern are to be gradually replaced by appropriate alternative chemicals in so far as they are economically and technically viable. In order to minimise the risks of PFASs in products, the UBA recommends that the REACH Regulation should limit imports of such goods. A number of textile manufacturers have already either switched to fluorine-free impregnation of textiles or announced their intention to do so in the next few years.

Maria Krautzberger said, "The impregnation of many textiles is excessive, and manufacturers seem to be focussed on extreme weather conditions. Customers should first consider just how waterproof or stain-resistant their garment really needs to be. The study confirms our inclination to have the EU Chemicals Regulation REACH put further limits on the production and use of PFASs."

In the near future Germany, Norway and the EU will submit a proposal for the introduction of a legal restriction on PFOA and its precursors. The proposal will include limit values for textiles, medical products and household goods.

Further information

The Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Idstein tested 15 weatherproof functional jackets and five impregnating agents on behalf of the UBA. One working jacket was also tested for comparison. The objective was to determine which PFASs and how much of them are released from jackets to the environment through outgassing, washing and impregnation. The jackets were classified in various price segments and issued from several different manufacturers. The jackets were purchased for the test in 2011. Distinction between country of origin was not possible since none of the jackets was produced completely in the EU. The authors also tested impregnating sprays and wash-in detergents.

So-called long-chain PFASs have been the focus of science and public authorities up to now. Because of their high stability and accumulation in the environment and organisms, the fluorine chemicals industry and textile manufacturers are increasingly replacing these long-chain PFASs with short-chain PFASs. However, these substitutes are also problematic: they are just as stable yet far more mobile, thus entering groundwater and drinking water. There are not yet any efficient and low-cost procedures for their extraction from water.

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