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The cure is worse than the disease: PFAS in protective workwear


The cure is worse than the disease: PFAS in protective workwear

It’s like overdosing on morphine to fix a headache. Official requirements for protective workwear demand that manufacturers soak their materials in PFAS, when in most cases there are effective alternatives that provide satisfactory protection

Published on 22 May 2024

There are two ways to wake up in the morning: have a strong cup of coffee, or stick your finger in an electric socket. We don’t do the second because it’s overkill – literally.

Yet this is the approach embodied in many of the standards for protective workwear. As a result, manufacturers are using hazardous PFAS chemicals indiscriminately to meet these standards, when safer alternatives are available that provide adequate protection.

PFAS-free materials can replace 75 per cent of all the categories of personal protective equipment, or PPE, according to unpublished research by Sympatex, a German manufacturer of hi-tech sustainable textiles. The company examined the technical requirements in tenders for procurement of technical textiles and then analysed the potential for substituting alternative substances to achieve the same specifications (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Categories of PPE.
Green = PFAS-free alternatives available to manufacturers
(Source: Sympatex)

Manufacturers are driven by official specifications that are far above what the wearer requires to effectively repel water, stains, oil or chemicals.

“Often the specifications are highly exaggerated and give the impression that they serve more as a justification for keeping PFAS in place rather than to really look at the needs of the end user,” says Dr Rüdiger Fox, CEO of Sympatex.

PFAS build up in food, water and the environment, and exposure is linked to a range of health issues, including cancer, infertility, birth defects and immune system disruptions.

Restrictions on PFAS use would stimulate innovation to develop more and better alternatives, Dr Fox says: “Innovation happens when we have clear boundaries so we can focus our energies. The moment we are clear about this we will find solutions much much faster.”

Detergent and water work better than PFAS

Sometimes the PFAS overkill in protective workwear borders on the absurd. Washing garments at 60 degrees is just as effective as using PFAS for protecting textiles from oil and dirt, according to an experiment performed by Swedish workwear manufacturer Tranemo

The company made a pair of flame-resistant, hi-vis trousers in which one leg was PFAS treated fabric while the other was untreated fabric. After exposure to a working environment, there was no difference in staining between the two halves of the garment, while washing at 60 degrees was sufficient to remove the oil and dirt from both legs (Figure 2).

“Our conclusion is simply that garments need to be washed regularly because dirt can affect the flame retardant properties,” says Louise Svensson, Technical Development Manager at Tranemo. 

Figure 2: One trouser leg is treated with PFAS, the other not
(Source: Tranemo)

Tranemo stopped using C8 PFAS chemicals in its products in 2015, and since 2020 the company has worked actively to phase out all PFAS on standard workwear, Hi-Vis workwear and also their PPE. Alternative PFAS-free finishes are available that provide limited chemical protection according to EN 13034, which specifies the requirements for protective clothing against splashes of chemical products. Customers are now asking for PFAS-free workwear, Louise Svensson said.

It is important to remember that PFAS solutions for technical textiles are not a one-off, says Theresa Kjell, Senior Policy Advisor at ChemSec: “Garments need to be treated again after washing, multiplying the quantity of PFAS multiple times during the product’s lifetime.”

So what about the 25% of cases where PFAS might play a necessary protective role? We need a different approach to the problem, Dr Fox argues. “If a firefighter’s boot reaches 200 degrees, then they have a bigger problem than hot feet and the melting of the protective membrane in their boots,” he says.

Theresa Kjell adds: “This shows that it is important that any derogation or exception given for a toxic substance in technical textiles needs to be very specific to the garment’s use and the user’s need.”

Dr Fox argues for a fundamental change in attitudes.

“Try to explain to a 5-year-old why we have the right to pollute his future forever just to avoid traces of stains on our workwear gear,” he says. “The worst case scenario is often that someone gets wet [if their workwear is not treated with PFAS]. Where is the justification?”

These findings were presented at a webinar hosted by ChemSec. You can sign up for more webinars in our PFAS series HERE.