The outdoor footwear company KEEN made a discovery about their shoes in 2014: they were rife with stain- and water-resistant chemicals known to harm human health called PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals.”
Laces, buckles, interior textiles and more were receiving a PFAS treatment before becoming part of a sandal or hiking boot.
“PFAS were being applied to styles that were meant to go in the water, and a water shoe doesn’t need to be waterproof,” Lauren Hood, KEEN sustainability manager, told
Environmental Health News (EHN).
The company started by asking suppliers to stop using unnecessary PFAS, which removed about 65% of this type of chemicals in their products. It took four years for KEEN to phase out PFAS in all products, through finding and testing chemical water-proofing alternatives.
Now apparel companies will need to follow KEEN’s example to comply with upcoming bans on PFAS in consumer products, including outdoor clothing, passed in at least three U.S. states. With varying timelines, the bans apply to all types of PFAS chemicals (researchers have documented more than 9,000), and cover industries specified in each state’s bill, such as food packaging or textiles.
PFAS is short for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a family containing thousands of chemicals with at least one strong carbon-fluorine bond. The bonds allow PFAS to repel water from clothing, but it also makes the chemicals extremely persistent in humans and the environment. Research has linked PFAS to health harms including reproductive issues, cancers and developmental delays in children,
according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
California and New York are first up — both states banned PFAS in food packaging starting in 2023, and have a 2025 deadline for removing PFAS from apparel. Maine has targeted 2030 to ban PFAS from nearly all products sold in the state. The bans in California and New York will have a wide impact, Avinash Kar, senior director of NRDC’s Health and Food, People and Communities Program, told
EHN. “Larger states can drive the overarching marketplace,” he said. Companies are likely to make uniform changes for their product line, so that the same items can be sold in states with or without PFAS bans, Kar added.
Some companies are ahead of the regulatory curve and have
already phased out all PFAS from their products, including Jack Wolfskin and Nikwax. Others have voluntary policies to phase out PFAS ahead of the 2025 deadline, including REI, which announced in February it won’t carry products included in the California PFAS ban starting in the fall of 2024. This standard applies to hundreds of outdoor brands that sell items through the co-op.
PFAS are often applied to products like rain coats and other water-resistant items used outdoors, so the upcoming bans will have a big impact on the outdoor apparel industry. To comply with the law, companies need to hunt down and remove the chemicals from their products. This means having conversations with suppliers and testing materials, then redesigning items if PFAS are present. These changes will likely ripple out to places beyond current PFAS-ban adopters, as companies remove PFAS across their supply-chain. Experts say this will cut down on people’s exposure to PFAS beyond the states enacting the bans, from factory workers and communities surrounding production sites, to consumers across the globe.
State by state bans
Enacted and proposed PFAS bans across U.S. states target different industries and include varying enforcement methods, but most cover a broad range of consumer products. In March, New York amended its law to better align with California’s regulation timeline and broadened the ban to include outdoor apparel and other industries. The synced timeline “makes planning much easier for companies,” James Pollack, an attorney who specializes in consumer product regulation at Marten Law, told EHN. “California and New York are two pretty big markets.”
Some states carve out exemptions or longer timelines for personal protective equipment and outdoor gear used in extreme conditions. For example, the California bill notes that there are currently no PFAS-alternatives for firefighting gear and exempts it from the ban.
One-at-a-time bans create a patchwork of regulation that can be difficult for companies to comply with, Pollack said. For the outdoor apparel industry, “the design phases for this [gear] are often years in advance,” he pointed out.
Enforcement methods for PFAS bans differ by state. California’s ban could be administered through lawsuits from the attorney general’s office or city and district attorneys. “We purposely did not put very stringent enforcement in there,” said California Assemblymember Phil Ting in a webinar about the PFAS ban he introduced. “The point of the bill is really to provide a timeline. We know that many retailers are already moving in this direction.” New York’s ban, on the other hand, introduces monetary penalties and assigns a department to administer the new regulations.
In addition to California, New York and Maine, there are enacted PFAS bans in Vermont, Maryland and Colorado, though apparel is not included in these states. PFAS bans for some products have been proposed in Minnesota and Rhode Island, and Vermont and New York are considering bills to expand theirs. Washington state’s legislature directed its department of ecology to create a PFAS ban for aftermarket fabric treatments, carpets and indoor furniture as early as 2025, and has set a later date for banning PFAS in apparel. The European Union is also considering a measure to ban all uses of PFAS.
At the U.S. federal level, however, there’s been less action on PFAS in consumer products. A bipartisan bill introduced to the U.S. House and Senate in 2021 to ban PFAS in food packaging never reached a vote in either body. The EPA announced standards for six common PFAS compounds in drinking water in March, following 10 states that created their own enforceable limits on PFAS in drinking water.
“I’ve been doing this work for a long time. It is powerful how bipartisan PFAS is,” Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States, told EHN. This month Vermont’s senate unanimously approved the bill that expands the range of consumer products included in its PFAS ban, which will now move to the state’s house. PFAS bans have seen bipartisan support in other states as well.
PFAS exposure isn’t seen as an urban or rural issue, said Doll. PFAS can be found in products nearly all Americans come into contact with from food packaging to furniture, so many want to see them phased out.
Getting PFAS out
Outdoor apparel brands and companies in other industries are now tasked with tracking down PFAS added to products and taking it out of their supply chain.
“In many cases, brands have no idea what’s in the products that they sell,” said Mike Schade, director of Mind the Store at Toxic-Free Future. Figuring out what chemicals are present can involve working through layers of suppliers to learn what is added to components of a product. Companies can also test their products to look for fluorine, a component of PFAS, or specific PFAS chemicals out of the thousands in the family.
For some products, like KEEN’s water shoes, PFAS simply isn’t needed and companies can work with their suppliers to remove it from production. For others, like wet weather gear, brands have to find and test alternative chemicals to find new options that perform well outdoors.
“As companies move away from PFAS, we think it’s important…to evaluate the safety of alternatives to ensure they’re not moving from one bad actor chemical to another. We don’t want to repeat mistakes of the past,” Schade said.
Those mistakes include a transition from long-chain PFAS to short-chain PFAS, which contain fewer carbon atoms. Many companies transitioned their apparel to short-chain PFAS, including Patagonia, in 2016. But researchers say these chemicals still pose risks to the environment and health. GenX, one chemical produced as an alternative to long-chain PFAS by Chemours, a spinoff of DuPont, has been linked to impacts on the liver, kidneys, immune system and development in animal studies, according to the EPA. Now some companies have to go back to correct that “regrettable substitution.” (Patagonia plans to carry entirely PFAS-free products by 2025.)
In addition to use for water and stain repellency, PFAS can end up in textiles and products unintentionally. Machine lubricants and other materials used in manufacturing can contain PFAS and contaminate the items produced in factories. In these instances, textile producers and brands may not be aware that PFAS are present. Removing those sources of the toxic chemicals could require testing and finding alternative materials to use during manufacturing.
KEEN has removed all intentionally added PFAS chemicals from their products, explained Hood. But, “the work is sort of never done,” she said, “nothing is really PFAS-free. It’s in the ice in the Arctic and it’s in our bodies. It’s just everywhere now.”
PFAS-free ripple effect
KEEN’s work to remove PFAS from products has created a bigger supply-chain impact, said Hood. Some manufacturers KEEN worked with to phase out the chemicals now sell PFAS-free components to other companies as well. Brands that have phased out PFAS are able to share resources and information, such as a guide KEEN published that includes alternative water-proofing recommendations.
Tracking down intentional uses of PFAS and removing them from products is a good start at reducing the presence of this harmful class of chemicals, said Schade. But preventing unintentional PFAS contamination will be a challenge that could take industries longer to solve. Ultimately, “unless we cut off the manufacturing of PFAS, they’re going to continue to show up as a contaminant,” Schade said.