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 PFAS 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.

A visit to Sweden to meet the POPFREE team

At the end of May, I was delighted to have the opportunity to head to Gothenburg, Sweden for the first working meeting of our POPFREE project. It was my first time in Sweden, and the first opportunity for us to meet all of our collaborators on this exciting, international and multi-pronged project.

The POPFREE project aims to find alternatives for PFAS over a range of different consumer products, by combining expertise and technical knowledge from a host of different companies and research organisations. An important aspect of the work is testing environmental impact of alternatives – we all want to make sure any PFAS-free chemicals are not themselves harmful to the environment. The project has big ambitions, and includes representatives from the cosmetics, outdoor clothing, ski-wax, paper and packaging, and textiles industry, as well as research scientists from across Scandinavia, and NGOs like us. Find out more at the POPFREE website.

The meeting kicked off with a delicious dinner and a chance to meet and swap stories. It was intriguing to get an insight into how and why many companies in Scandinavia are voluntarily phasing out PFAS from their products, and the efforts some retailers have already gone to in order to make this a reality.

The actual work started early the next day, at the Swerea research institute, with a tour of the extensive facilities. The laboratories test consumer products for technical quality (durability, water & stain resistance, strength, etc.) as well as being able to analyse for a range of different chemical compounds. This includes certain PFAS compounds, such as the best known PFOA and PFOS. A children’s rucksack was currently being put through its paces, with holes cut out of every component, to make sure every part of it was free of harmful chemicals.

These fantastic research facilities are available as part of the two-year POPFREE project – today’s meeting was to plan exactly how to use them. The meeting was a chance for all the consortium members to explain in person what they were looking for from the project and find out what progress had already been made in different research groups. I gave a presentation about Fidra’s School Uniform survey results – and the reasons why we think that stain-resistant coatings might not be needed at all. You can find out more about that from on our Research pages.

Fidra will be contributing to the project through by continuing our dialogue with UK retailers who stock uniforms, spreading news of results as they begin to appear through the project, as well as continuing our own research into the needs and wants of UK consumers. We’re excited to work together with scientists and make sure our project goals are backed up by cutting-edge research.