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.”
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. 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.
 Betts KS (May 2007). “Perfluoroalkyl acids: what is the evidence telling us?”. Environ. Health Perspect. 115 (5): A250–6. doi:10.1289/ehp.115-a250. PMC 1867999. PMID 17520044. http://www.ehponline.org/members/2007/115-5/focus.html.