Study Finds Toxic 'Forever Chemicals' in Most Stain- and Water-Resistant Textiles

raincoats and rain boots

 Elena Bennett / EyeEm / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers tested 47 products labeled as stain- or water-resistant. Nearly three-quarters of the products contained harmful PFAS.
  • The toxic chemicals were found in a variety of products, including bedding, yoga pants, tablecloths, and raincoats.
  • PFAS can cause serious and long-term health effects.

Toxic “forever chemicals” can be found in a wide range of products we wear, sleep on, and eat our food from, according to a new report.

Many products marketed as stain- and water-resistant contain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. The components of PFAS break down very slowly overtime, and they're found in the bloodstream of people, in everyday products, and in the environment. PFAS has been linked to a host of health issues including various cancers, liver and thyroid diseases, and immune suppression.

In a report published January 2022, researchers at the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future tested 60 products for PFAS from 10 major retailers. Items included in the study ranged from outdoor apparel to napkins to bedding from major retailers like REI, Walmart, and Target.

For the study, researchers screened the selected items for fluorine, a key chemical component of PFAS, and sent the fluorinated products to a lab to test for the concentration and make-up of the chemicals.

Of the 47 products marketed as stain- and water-repellent, PFAS were found in 72% of them. At least one product from each of the 10 retailers included in this report contained PFAS.

“I'm afraid there are almost no consumer products that are entirely free of PFAS at this point,” Graham Peaslee, PhD, professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame, who is not affiliated with the report, told Verywell. “I don't think you're going to find much that isn’t fluorinated, including the humans who wear them—we’ve all got fluorine in our blood from these types of chemicals and it's not clear how to get them entirely out except to stop using them at the source.”

Exposure Through Textiles

The researchers found that products marketed as stain- and water-resistant were highly likely to contain PFAS, while those that were not labeled as such were PFAS-free.

Water- and stain-resistant products have long been manufactured with a PFAS-rich chemical surface treatment or a laminated membrane.

Certain PFAS-containing products, like fast food wrappers and nonstick cookware, interact directly with food. But even when we don’t eat or drink from a PFAS-containing item, such as a rain jacket or waterproof boots, the chemicals can affect our bodies, according to Erika Schreder, MS, study author and science director at Toxic-Free Future.

“What we see is that they emit PFAS into the air and then we're breathing those chemicals,” Shreder told Verywell. “Many of us will work in environments where PFAS-treated items are present or go to school in indoor environments that are contaminated by PFAS.”

PFAS have been detected in carpeted daycares, schools, retail stores, and workplaces. When people spend lots of time in spaces with PFAS-containing items, they may ingest or inhale the chemicals that have detached and become airborne from carpets treated with PFAS.

Hundreds of studies link PFAS to thyroid disruption, various cancers, elevated cholesterol levels, reduced kidney function, and even decreased immune response—an outcome with detrimental effects during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Being exposed to even small amounts can be detrimental over time, as the toxins persist in the body and scientists haven’t yet found a way to scrub them.  

PFAS-Treated Textiles Cause a Long-Term Environmental Crisis

PFAS can leach into waterways and soil through the manufacturing process and at textile mills that apply the chemicals to apparel and home goods. When PFAS-treated apparel is laundered, the chemicals can break off into drinking water as well.

More than 66% of textiles generated in a year wind up in the landfill in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. Within the next few decades, the majority of the PFAS from these garments will be released into the environment.

Peaslee estimated that a heavy-duty coat can contain half a pound of fluorinated chemicals. “This is an environmental problem that is really enormous in the United States. These chemicals don't go away—they cycle for thousands of years,” he said.

Some microbes can degrade plastics and other toxic substances in landfills. In the case of PFAS, a carbon-fluorine chain attaches to another carbon. Microbes may metabolize the carbon bonds but will leave the carbon-fluorine chain be. This means complex PFAS molecules will partially degrade, but the underlying carbon-fluorine bonds, which are extremely strong and durable, “will last forever,” Peaslee said. These persistent chemicals can pollute the environment and wind up in the bodies of humans and animals.

Textile Manufacturers and Retailers Trail Behind

In 2006, the European Union banned the use of one of the most harmful PFAS, called PFOA, and in 2019 restricted the use of PFOS. In the U.S., eight major manufacturers agreed to phase out the production of PFOA by 2015. The EPA said it will update drinking water health advisories, but does not yet have any regulations for these chemicals.

Among the PFAS, the dangers of PFOS and PFOA are best documented. Still, Toxic-Free Future found that three-quarters of the tested PFAS-containing items included these chemicals.

“At the time that we bought these products, which was years after we found out that these chemicals were toxic, they were still in extremely common use,” Schreder said. Her team purchased the products in 2020.

Alternatives to DuPont’s Teflon-coated non-stick pans, which were found to contain high levels of PFAS, emerged as early as 2007. But the textile industry is relatively far behind other industries in terms of making PFAS-free products, according to Peaslee.

“Fluorine chemicals are disappearing from outerwear. But chemical companies have been very industrious and getting it everywhere else,” Peaslee said. “I think that the textile industry is sort of caught blindsided by this—nobody's ever been checking to see what's on their materials.”

Studies from the past decade indicate high concentrations of these toxic chemicals in a wide array of apparel. PFAS are used for their fireproofing as well as their water- and stain-repellent properties in clothing items like school uniforms and firefighter uniforms. They’ve been found in products from menstrual underwear to swimsuits.

Researchers are investigating whether PFAS can be absorbed through the skin, especially in sensitive areas like the underarm, groin, and neck. One study of mice showed the health effects of dermal exposure is comparable to the hazards of ingesting PFAS in water or food.

If future research shows the skin to be an important means of exposure, it could be particularly relevant to manufacturers and retailers of apparel and goods like bedding and car seats.

Bringing an End to Forever Chemicals

Manufacturers appear to be moving the needle on PFAS, creating products that use safer alternatives such as silicone and paraffin. After all, 28% of the items labeled water- and stain-resistant in the study turned out to be PFAS-free.

“We were pleased to find that there are options for consumers—that companies are successfully making the products that people want without these toxic chemicals,” Schreder said.

But Schreder said regulations must go beyond banning the production of PFAS in the U.S. All labeled items included in the study were manufactured in Asia. The U.S. imported more than 89 billion square meter equivalents of textiles and apparel in 2021.  Even if the U.S. had more stringent policies to regulate PFAS, the chemicals could still pollute households and water ways via products from abroad.

“We need to simply ban the presence of PFAS in products, if made or sold in the U.S.,” Schreder said.

The EPA made its first steps toward setting enforceable limits for these chemicals in October. The agency will restrict contamination for a handful of the most prevalent PFAS, require manufacturers to report how much PFAS they use in products, and invest in research and clean-up efforts.

Yet, after decades of research on the health harms of PFAS, there are no enforceable federal regulations, and few state standards. Plus, the EPA roadmap only accounts for the most prevalent PFAS despite the class containing more than 4,700 chemicals.

Peaslee said the impetus to limit PFAS products will likely come first from industries, not regulatory bodies. With growing evidence of the health risks and ubiquity of these chemicals, manufacturers will be pressured to develop greener alternatives to PFAS-containing products.

Researchers and organizations like Toxic-Free Future can bring awareness to the issue and consumers can limit their PFAS exposure by avoiding products that are marketed as stain- or water-repellent.

“If you’re going up Mount Everest, you probably do want a fluorinated jacket. But if you’re going to the mall, do you really need that? The answer is no,” Peaslee said.

What This Means For You

You can reduce your exposure to these harmful chemicals by looking for products labeled “PFAS-free.” Experts say the easiest way to limit PFAS exposure is to avoid products with claims of stain or water resistance.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.