Non-polymer PFAS can build up in blood protein of animals, and is not always removed quickly. This means that predators eating PFAS-contaminated food will have higher levels in their bloodstream, and concentrations can increase up the food chain. Studies suggest that build up of PFAS is similar to those of other Persistent Organic Pollutants such as DDT.PFAS are estimated to be settling in arctic regions at rates of tens to hundreds of kilograms per year (25-850kg per year), depending on the specific PFAS chemical in question. Certain PFAS are released as gases to the environment and are blown a long way by wind and air currents in the atmosphere,. These gas PFAS will over time degrade to more persistent chemicals like PFOS and PFOA. This may be one reason why PFAS of environmental concern have been found in remote regions such as the Arctic as well as near PFAS production sitesPFAS including PFOS and PFOA have been found in air samples around Europe. The chemicals are found in small quantities, but appear in almost all samples tested. PFAS enters the atmosphere both from factories and the air inside our homes. PFAS is found in treated waste water from industrial and domestic sources and has been found in both rivers and groundwater. Conventional drinking water processes will not remove PFAS.PFAS-coated clothes that are thrown away will often end up either incinerated or in landfill. Unless incinerated at very high temperatures (>1000oC), fluorinated polymers could release more harmful PFAS during burning. PFAS of environmental concern have also been found in landfill leachate. Non-polymer PFAS are used in the production of fluorinated polymers. The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes generally releases these PFASs into the environment, both by air and water emissions. They are very hard to remove during water treatment. Workers in textiles factories are some of the population most exposed to these potentially harmful chemicals. Small quantities of PFAS will be removed during wash and wear of products containing PFAS. This includes fluorinated polymers used on stain-resistant coatings, and non-polymers that remain on clothes after production (Lassen et al. 2015).Most UK waste still ends up in landfill, and this includes PFAS-containing products. Studies have shown that the liquid coming from landfills (known as leachate) often contain non-polymer PFAS chemicals. In the USA the total quantities were estimated at 563-638 kg in 2013. To properly break down PFAS chemicals high temperature (1000oC or more) incineration is recommended. Incineration of municipal waste does not necessarily reach these temperatures (min temp. required is 850oC), and the incomplete breakdown could release non-polymer PFAS.Wash and wear of clothing that contains PFAS-based stain-resistant or water repellent finishes release PFAS to the environment. Coatings are thought to lose effectiveness after 20-30 washes. This can include non-polymer PFAS, remnant from production or as a break-down product of side-chain polymers (Lassen et al. 2015). The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes releases PFASs into the environment, both by air and water emissions. PFAS are very hard to remove during water treatment. Industrial emissions are estimated to be the biggest source of these chemicals to the environment.

Frequently Asked Questions

The widespread use and success of PFASs comes down to a few key characteristics, understanding these will give you enough knowledge to start guessing where they might be found and looking out for them in products you buy.

What is stain resistance?

Lots of school uniforms claim to be stain resistant, this often means chemicals have been applied to the material to make the fabric repel water and oil. The term ‘stain resistant’ only implies that stains cannot penetrate the fabric as easily so that some stains wipe off. However, the flip-side is that if stains do get onto the fabric water cannot penetrate as easily during washing and the stain is harder to get out. Some brands also add a ‘stain release’ formula to allow stains out again but this is often not the case.

What chemicals are used to make stain resistant coatings?

Stain resistant finishes are applied to uniforms and can be made of a number of chemicals. Some stain resistant finishes on uniforms contain PFASs (Per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances).  PFASs are synthetic chemicals of environmental concern, used in a wide range of products, not just uniforms. Alternatives to PFAS do exist for uniforms, many school uniforms are being produced and sold already without using these potentially harmful chemicals.

Are PFAS stain resistant uniforms dangerous to children?

Most PFAS coatings on uniforms are unlikely to cause harm, as they are made of large polymer molecules that cannot be taken up easily by the human body. However some PFAS chemicals of concern are used in the production process to make stain resistant coatings and there might be remnants of the chemicals used on the clothing in small quantities. During production of uniform coatings PFAS of concern are released into the environment and they can build up over time as they don’t break down easily.

Are PFAS stain resistant uniforms bad for the environment?

PFAS can wash off clothes, leach from landfill and incinerators, and leak out in production, with PFAS ending up in our environment. PFAS last a long time and they are now found across the remotest regions of the globe. As well as uniforms PFAS are used in our food packaging, in our homes on stain-resistant textiles, on non-stick cookware and cleaning products, our workplaces, our drinking water, in wildlife and in our own bodies1. We know these chemicals can do harm to animals from laboratory experiments, and there are signs they are harming wildlife, including polar bears.

How long does PFAS stain resistance last and will it make uniform last longer?

The majority of PFAS-based stain resistant finishes on uniforms are only guaranteed to last 10 or 20 washes depending on the brand used. Based on average washing habits this represents around a third of a school year so if you bought new uniforms at the start of the autumn term, wash them once a week they will be washed off by the February break. There’s no evidence people who buy stain resistant uniforms wash them any less or replace uniforms less frequently, so it seems stain resistant uniforms don’t reduce washing or increase the life of a uniform in real terms.

What can we do?

Avoiding PFAS-based stain resistant uniforms is not difficult. Many major retailers have already switched to PFAS-free alternative, at no change in cost. Unfortunately we don’t know much about the chemistry of the alternatives used. Of course, there are often non-coated alternatives available, which tend to be cheaper! Visit our Who Sells What section to find out more.

Do we need stain-resistant coatings on schoolwear?

What do you think? Do you have any questions or comments? We’re keen to hear your opinions and get feedback on our new website. Please get in touch with us.