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.

Stain resistant uniforms go PFAS free on the high street

Supermarkets and high street shops are starting to stock PFAS free stain resistance. However manufacturers won’t reveal the chemicals in the stain resistance coatings now being used, leaving consumers and retailers in the dark about the environmental impacts of stain resistance.

Fidra’s PFAS Free School Uniforms project is highlighting the impacts of PFAS, a group of long-lasting chemicals of environmental concern which are used in some stain resistance. Over the last few months most high street shops and major supermarkets have started to stock alternatives to PFAS stain resistance on school uniforms (see Who Sells What? for the latest information).

Heather McFarlane, Project Manager at Fidra explains: ‘PFAS is known to harm wildlife and has also been found in people.  We can’t risk PFAS being used on school uniforms, coming out in the wash and getting into the environment. It is encouraging to see so many shops stock PFAS free options but in some stores and independent shops there may still be uniforms on sale with PFAS on. We would encourage all retailers and suppliers to take a closer look at the products they are selling, talk to their manufacturers and move away from stain resistant coating containing PFAS.’’

Is stain resistance now safe for the environment?

Most high street shops and supermarkets appear to be phasing out PFAS stain resistance on school uniforms. But with manufacturers reluctant to reveal what is in the new stain resistance coatings finding safer alternatives can be a challenge for retailers. Many retailers are unable to confirm what chemicals are used in the stain resistant products they sell. This lack of information makes it impossible for shoppers to know the environmental credentials of products or make informed decisions about what to buy.

Heather McFarlane explains: ‘’It can be difficult for retailers and consumers to find out what chemicals are in the coatings on school uniforms, so wherever possible we’d recommend avoiding stain resistance all together. Our survey of uniform washing and purchasing habits reveals that stain resistance does not reduce the amount washing or mean that people buy uniforms less often compared to uniforms without stain resistance. If consumers aren’t benefiting from stain resistance do we really need it?’’ 

Full details of Fidra’s survey of over 600 parents and carers is available here detailing the laundry and shopping habits for school uniforms. Fidra are now investigating the performance of uniforms with stain resistance and those without stain resistance as most manufacturers only guarantee stain resistance for up to 20 washes and only if specific care instructions are followed.