Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

Most of the time, we try to share information with you (which tends to be impersonal), but blogs are supposed to be personal.  Last week, I had a personal experience I have to talk about.  It was an experience that was entirely daunting, and defined for me the kind of mountain we’re trying to climb.

I had taken a very small hand knotted rug into a local business which specializes in cleaning rugs of all kinds.  The clerk was a personable young man who was writing up the order.  After “Name”, “Address” and “Telephone number” he asked whether I wanted their stain repellent applied to the rug.

Reader, I couldn’t help myself:  not only did I decline, but I mentioned that these stain repellents are (and yes, I used the word) :   toxic.  I mean, fibers ARE something I know a bit about and I had done some research into stain repellents.  Here’s a synopsis of those blogs on finishes in case you missed our blog post about them (click here and here to read those posts):

All stain repellent finishes used in textiles (such as Scotchguard, GoreTex, NanoTex,  Crypton, Teflon) are based on fluorotelomer chemistry – which means it pertains to chemicals which become  perfluorocarbons (PFCs) when they are released into the environment.   PFC’s  break down in the body and in the environment to  Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) , Perfluorooctanyl sulfate (PFOS) and similar chemicals.  These are among the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man.   Scientists noticed that PFOS  was showing up everywhere: in polar bears, dolphins, baby eagles, tap water and human blood. So did its cousin PFOA.    These two man-made perfluorochemicals (PFOS and PFOA) don’t decompose in nature. They kill laboratory rats at higher doses, and are toxic to humans, with health effects ranging from  birth or developmental effects, to the brain and nervous system, immune system (including sensitization and allergies) and some forms of cancer.  Once they are in the body, it takes decades to get them out – assuming you are exposed to no more.  According to Our Stolen Future, the “ PFOS story is likely to emerge as one of the apocryphal examples of 20th century experimentation with widespread chemical exposures: prolific use and almost no testing for safety, until unexpectedly and almost serendipitously, it is discovered as a contaminant virtually everywhere. And as is often the case in these stories, the company producing PFOS products possessed information hinting at its risks but chose not to share their data with regulators or the public for years.”[1]

Alarmed by the findings from toxicity studies, the EPA announced on December 30, 2009, that PFC’s would be on a “chemicals of concern” list and action plans  could prompt restrictions on PFC’s and the other three chemicals on the list. ( The other  three chemicals on the list are polyprominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), phthalates and short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs)  Three of these four chemicals are used in textile processing.)

Although little PFOA can be found in the finished product, the breakdown of the fluorotelomers used in fabric treatments might explain how more than 90% of all Americans have these hyper-persistent, toxic chemicals in their blood. A growing number of researchers believe that fabric-based, stain-resistant coatings, which are ubiquitous, may be the largest environmental source of this controversial chemical family of PFCs.

In January 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approached the eight largest fluorocarbon producers and requested their participation in the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, and their commitment to reduce PFOA and related chemicals globally in both facility emissions and product content 95 percent by 2010, and 100 percent by 2015.

The fluoropolymer manufacturers are improving their processes and reducing their waste in order to reduce the amount of PFOA materials used. The amount  of PFOA in finishing formulations is greatly diminished and continues to go down, but even parts per trillion are detectable. Finishing formulators continue to evaluate new materials which can eliminate PFOA while maintaining performance but a solution is still over the horizon.  One critical piece in this puzzle is that PFOA is also produced indirectly through the gradual breakdown of fluorotelomers – so a stain resistant finish may be formulated with no detectable amounts of PFOA yet STILL produce PFOA when the chemicals begin to decompose.

Now back to me, standing in the office and trying to convey to this nice guy that the finish he’s proposing is not only toxic, but ubiquitous and on the EPA’s “chemicals of concern” list.

Well, the guy insisted that no, indeed, the finish they use is entirely safe and it can even be used around babies.

I was taken aback and thought that maybe they had discovered a new and safe stain repellent that I didn’t yet know about.  So giving him the benefit of the doubt, I asked what it is that they use.  He handed me their brochure:  it was  Teflon!

That means that the finish they’re pushing is just the same old story, based on perfluorocarbons (PFCs) chemistry, which is persistent and bio-accumulative.  This means that once it’s in your blood, your body can not get rid of it.  And it’s found in the blood of 90% of all Americans. 

In animal studies it causes cancer, physical developmental delays, endocrine disruption and neonatal mortality.[2] Do you think that’s safe?

So I tried to let the guy know that his “safe” finish really isn’t, but he clearly thought I was a fringe lunatic.  He even said that they couldn’t advertise something as being safe if it really wasn’t.  That was just like throwing fuel on my fire, because if you’ve been reading our blog – or indeed almost anything having to do with the EPA these days – you’ll know that the government has received much criticism for the absence of consumer protection from chemicals used in products.  There have been some celebrated products (such as sunscreen) which receive a lot of attention, but fabric is especially complex.

But there was clearly no way I was going to gain any ground with this guy, who was as anxious to get rid of me as I was to leave!  And because he can, because nobody is preventing this product from being used in our homes, he’s still telling young mothers that his finish is entirely safe for their babies.

12 thoughts on “Do you believe everything you’re told?

  1. Tracy Davis says:

    I’m horrified… and not surprised.

    Depending on whom I’m talking to, I sometimes try to get the Material Safety Data Sheet for the product, and give that to them with the critical bits highlighted. But as you know, it’s not easy to get the specific information about what treatments have been used on particular fibers or fabrics.

    As an aside – If your hand-knotted rug is made of wool, it really shouldn’t need any kind of additional “stain repellent” treatments, beyond the intrinsic properties of the wool. Is it wool, or some other fiber?

  2. indiana says:

    it’s a story heard far too often.

  3. Karen Rodriguez says:

    Hmmm! This surprises me a bit. I think most people are aware that there is some controversy about soil & stain repellants, especially Teflon. Still, good for you that you brought it up. I think customer concern/demand is a very motivating factor for small businesses.

  4. Susan says:

    My decorator is trying to get me to buy her own line of crypton furniture. I just googled the word and found your site. I also found this at a furniture site:

    “Crypton does not contain any toxic chemicals, heavy metals or carcinogens that can be leached out with water or upholstery cleaners. Crypton Super Fabrics do not contain air polluting VOCs. Crypton uses no PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acids) during its manufacturing process. Crypton uses no formaldehyde and does not contain vinyl.”

    What would your response to this be? What do they use instead? Do you have a blog covering Crypton individually? thanks,

    1. oecotextiles says:

      Hi Susan: I’m glad you’re beginning to question what the manufacturers are telling us, because we (of course) think the issue is very important to us all!
      First, remember that Crypton is only a finish – it is NOT the fabric. So if your decorators furniture uses fabrics which have been produced conventionally, then they most assuredly contain a number of chemicals which have been proven to impact human health adversely. All natural fiber fabrics are, by weight, about 27% synthetic chemicals (dyestuffs, bleaches, finishes); synthetics are of course 100%. So it’s important that these synthetic chemicals are safe for our use. And remember that there is a synergy in these chemicals – individually they might not be horrible, but often they react with each other to create something that truly is horrible.
      But back to Crypton: what is most important in the description you cite is what is NOT discussed. I will discuss each point individually:
      • “Crypton does not contain any toxic chemicals, heavy metals or carcinogens that can be leached out with water or upholstery cleaners” – we have to take their word on this because they will not tell us what IS used because it is proprietary, yet MBDC just rescinded the Crypton Cradle to Cradle certification because it does not meet their new guidelines. Our discussions with Crypton included one assertion by Crypton representatives that Crypton does not include any Substances of Very High Concern identified by Europe’s REACH program. Our response: The fact that Crypton is free of Substances of Very High Concern identified by Europe’s REACH program is not much comfort as fewer than thirty chemicals are on the list as the EU slowly assesses the over 270 early candidates for inclusion on its SIN (Substitute It Now) List. The SIN list does not yet even include endocrine disrupters, which REACH is only now considering for inclusion. So chemicals like Bisphenol-A (which Americans have heard about) are not even on the SIN list yet, but no doubt will be in time.

      • “Crypton Super Fabrics do not contain air polluting VOCs.” First this refers to Crypton’s Gold certificate from Scientific Certification Systems as having ultra low emissions – not zero, as this claim states. But even so, this diverts attention from the real concern, because products may happen to outgas at ultra low levels, but still be a product of grave concern. The passionate debate within the US Green Building Council on whether to award green LEED points for the use of vinyl is one illustration. Vinyl could qualify for LEED points because it does not happen to outgas, but it is still the very top of the Greenpeace plastics pyramid for substances to avoid. The vinyl proponents finally lost that battle. A whole movement has emerged to address these deficiencies in LEED: look at http://www.pharosproject.net/ or http://cascadiagbc.org/living-future/11/program

      • “Crypton uses no PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acids) during its manufacturing process” – here’s the meat of the problem, and it’s a bit hard to understand without some chemistry background. Suffice it to say that there are so many varieties of perfluorochemicals that a company can truthfully say they do not use one kind – while using another. According to an email dated April, 2011 from Dr. Hardy Sullivan, Director of Research, “Crypton is not made from or using PFOA or PFOS. Crypton is made from perfluorochemicals that are persistent (long-lasting) but Crypton is not toxic or bioaccumulative.” So by their own admission they use perfluorochemicals; they just do not tell us which kind they use. Much research has been done on what is known as C6 chemistry, which is supposed to be less harmful than PFOA or PFOS, however it has been found that in order to achieve the same results much more of the finish has to be applied – and maybe they use this kind but they will not disclose what they use. We had two blog posts on stain repellant finishes where you can read a bit more about this, https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/soil-and-stain-resistant-finishes/ and https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/what-about-soil-resistant-finishes-like-scotchgard-goretex-nanotex-and-greenshield-are-they-safe/

      • “Crypton uses no formaldehyde and does not contain vinyl” – again another red herring and beside the point.

      Unfortunately, refuting some blithe claims take a lot more verbiage and most people don’t want to sit still to hear the whole story. And I’m sorry to have to throw so much at you. But manufacturers claims are really getting out of hand. Good luck.

      Best, Leigh Anne

  5. Sam says:

    Hi, Do you have any idea how long 3M scotchgard protector remains in carpets?

    I think some of my carpets may of been treated at factory with it. The carpets were fitted over 15 years ago, so if it does contain scotchgard if would of been the old formulation I guess (I believe scotchgard phased out the use of PFOA,& PFOS by June 2003).

    Would it of broken down by now? I regularly deep clean the carpet hence they are in still in excellent condition even after all these years and they don’t really need replacing. I also guess we would of already absorbed any nasty toxins over this period and it’s probably too late to really do anything about it.

    I imagine many people around the world will have older items treated with scotchgard items and maybe wondering the same.


    1. Hi Sam: I think your question is beyond my knowledge of chemistry – you’d do better to contact some chemistry professors who study PFC’s (Johns Hopkins researchers Rolf Halden, Dr. Lynn Goldman and Dr. Frank Witter are three I know of). What we do know about these chemicals is that they are persistent in the environment (i.e., they don’t break down), they can stay in the human body for a very long time (though for how long doesn’t seem to be known), and the amount of chemical in the body can accumulate over time. We also know that manufacturers tell their customers that cleaning does not affect the efficacy of the stain repellant. But there is a lot that they don’t know about PFC’s. My gut reaction is that your carpet would still contain the chemicals. Leigh Anne

  6. Drew says:

    Very helpful blog – keep up the fight! I’mm glad that CA has finally removed the requirement for flame retardant in furniture,

    1. Yes but we have to remain vigilant – just because CA doesn’t require flame retardants, it doesn’t ban them either.

  7. Karthika Audinet says:

    Thank you for this blog. I am a textile designer and professor, trying to figure out what to tell my students when they choose furnishing fabrics for their projects. I’ll share this with them.

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