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The Toxic Avengers

Beyond the new head of the EPA, PFCs are the latest environmental bogeyman, but the outdoor industry is having trouble letting them go.


by Jason Daley

Even if you’re raised on kale chips and GMO-free barley stew, if you’re a resident of North America, your bloodstream is likely a toxic swamp of pesticides, pthalates, and other undecipherable compounds listed on the shampoo bottle. You might as well clear the calendar and start the coffee enemas now.

But in a few years, one class of toxins may begin to dissipate. Perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, are a large family of chemicals used for water and fireproofing things like couches and carpets. Outdoor companies have used them as coatings for decades to keep morons like us from dying of hypothermia, and recently, several have promised to purge them from production. But exterminating PFCs is proving harder than we thought.

Just wearing a jacket or shoes coated in PFCs won’t cause tumors—it’s the manufacturing process that releases them into the environment that we need to be most concerned with. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the type of PFC traditionally used in outdoor products, takes decades or longer to break down. There’s also evidence that PFOA is a human carcinogen that leads to cancer, kidney damage, and reproductive issues.

In a Greenpeace study, PFOAs and other PFCs were found globally, even in the tiniest glacial rivulets in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Another study found Greenland’s polar bears marinating in the molecules. The chemicals bioaccumulate in the body, which means your gently emerging love handles are likely chock full of ’em.

But the tide may finally be turning on PFCs. Nikwax, the brand you turn to for re-waterproofing the pup tent and your ski pants, is one company pushing for reduction of PFC use. Over its 40-year history, it’s never used PFCs. Instead, their waterproofer is a biodegradable blend of mineral wax and EVA polymer. “We’re a home-based application,” says Nikwax’s Heidi Allen. “It’s one reason we’ve always been PFC free. We believe it’s bad for people to have giant bottles of problematic chemicals in their home.”

Big apparel brands are ousting PFCs, too. The North Face, Jack Wolfskin, and Mammut have committed to ridding them from most product lines by 2020. Elsewhere, the changes have been incremental: As a stopgap measure, in the last few years, the industry as a whole has switched from C8, long chain PFOA, to C6, which breaks down faster. Though some question whether C6 is much better.

Greenpeace Europe, for one, has gone after the industry with its Detox Outdoor campaign, to convince brands to quit PFCs now. The problem, the industry claims, is that no alternative currently matches PFCs’ durability. “It’s challenging for outdoor brands to stop using them,” says Allen. “They haven’t found something that works as well in their manufacturing process.”

What’s more, says James Rogers, who oversees sustainability at The North Face, in seeking a new waterproof coating, “We must avoid swapping out one problem for another. It’s why we’re proceeding deliberately.”

Yet politics, at least in Europe, are beginning to drive change. The European Union banned the use of PFOS—a PFC used in stain repellents and fireproofing—in 2008. Now, the pressure is on to ban PFOAs. In response, several European brands, including Vaude, Rotauf, and P´aramo, (owned by Nikwax founder Nick Brown), have all brought PFC-free clothing lines to market that rely on proprietary eco-friendly waterproof coatings. Patagonia has employed a Swiss Company called Beyond Surface Technologies that uses plant seed oils for a fix, but so far none meet the Chouinard company’s standards. Gore-Tex recently announced that it’s investing $15 million toward developing alternative coatings for select items in 2018.

But so far, most of those coatings are only suitable for casual adventurers in low-risk settings. Silicone or wax-based coatings lose their water repellency if contaminated with dirt or oil, and they don’t last as long as PFCs, which means they’re out for climbing Nanga Parbat or ski touring in the Cascades. With time, though, Rogers and others are confident the industry will find a whole family of PFC replacements.

Until then, we’ll hope these lumps subside on their own.


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