Now, a little bit about the PFAS family. The term describes a class of about 4,700 chemicals distinguished by fluorine substituted for hydrogen along a carbon chain. Two infamous PFAS family members are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). These are 8-carbon chain substances that are no longer manufactured in the US but have been manufactured and studied the most. Manufacturers now prefer 6-chain PFAS substances, hoping these will be less harmful or break down faster. However, this is likely a chemical whack-a-mole, and experts believe the substitution is not likely to improve the harms. In large part, that is why many scientific advisory groups advocate a class ban on PFAS chemicals — to avoid the easy substitution of the of these chemicals for any of the thousands available to replace it.
In a bit of biting irony, the most useful properties of PFAS also lends unique difficulty. The carbon-fluorine bond that makes them resistant to oils and water but also makes them impossibly difficult to break down naturally in the environment. So PFAS are persistent “forever” chemicals in the environment. They leak out from our products or during manufacture into the environment. PFAS can be found in 99% of US citizens, and in such wild environments as remote little-trafficked mountain peaks. They are found in animals worldwide, although most concentrated in apex predators as it can bio-accumulate up the food chain. The humans most at-risk from exposure to these chemicals are those involved in the manufacture of them or living nearby manufacturing facilities. Several communities, such as Parkersburg, WV, home of a Teflon manufacturing facility, have seen and documented the negative health effects that come from saturating a community in these chemicals.
The human effects of PFAS are thought to include such problems as renal and testicular cancers, liver dysfunction, hypothyroidism, lower birth weight and size, obesity, reduced immune response to vaccines, and reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty. The data is based on observational studies in humans, largely involving PFOA and PFOS exposures. There will never be double-blinded studies on this, nor studies on every individual compound in the PFAS family. The best data is from population studies linking blood or placental level to outcomes, and from cohorts of exposed populations documenting high risk of disease with exposure. These effects are not easily noticed on an individual basis. They are patterns that emerge across populations. This makes them harder to study, and harder to contemplate your individual risk and the risk to the world at large.
We are considering a trade-off. On an individual level, the risk of health effects from wearing PFAS raingear is low. We can see the benefit of staying dry on that bushwhack in the rain or floating a river on a chilly day. But each time we are buying new PFAS coated gear, we are introducing a little more PFAS into the world. As this does not breakdown, you could expect increasing levels of PFAS worldwide. Manufacturing communities experience disproportionate impacts. Avoiding PFAS products is a choice you can make to improve the health of people and the environment.
Manufacturers have been slow to move away from PFAS. Alternative products that are equally waterproof have performance trade-offs, like shorter lifespan or less breathability. Some of the known alternative options include: PVC materials (poor breathability, cancer risks from phthalates) and polyurethane coated nylon (less breathability, more easily soaked). The challenge here is to find a product that performs as well as PFAS without the trade-offs. So far, there hasn’t been a clear solution, but there are some options emerging. Check out PFAS Central for lists of products and companies committed to PFAS-free gear.
When you are buying gear, make sure you check for PFAS-free labeling. Companies often do not clearly mark their products with a complete list of components. Many have their own in-house waterproof technology that contains PFAS but do not label as such. Even more confusing, certifications from third parties, like bluesign or OKEO-TEX, do not mean a product is PFAS-free. These third-party safety and environmental health certifications are allowing PFAS products to pass certification if there is not an alternative with acceptable performance. The simplest solution is to avoid waterproof products unless they are specifically labeled PFAS-free.
So now you are an informed consumer. Collectively we have a voice, one that is amplified as leaders in the wilderness medicine community. We can seek out PFAS-free products and talk to others about our choices. As this gathers momentum, we hope manufacturers will catch on and follow the customers wherever we lead them.