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Why some waterproof gear wrecks the environment, and how to avoid it

Warm, waterproof gear is a necessity for anyone who goes out of doors during the winter. While adventurers of yore relied on animal pelts and oiled canvas, today we use a variety of light, durable, attractive synthetic materials. Unfortunately, most of those materials utilize a water-repellent chemical that is hazardous to wildlife and human health.

Patagonia — with a stellar reputation for environmental conservation to uphold — still uses fluorocarbons to manufacture its waterproof gear.

Nearly all DWR (durable water repellent) gear uses a type of chemical known as perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, to disperse moisture from the surface. PFCs are the same chemicals found in nonstick cookware. For example, the PFC known as C8 recently became notorious for poisoning the town of Parkersburg, West Virginia. The town is located near DuPont’s manufacturing plant, and exposure to wastewater led to rampant birth deformities in the community.

PFCs are ubiquitous. They degrade slowly in the environment and thus have a tendency to accumulate, even in the remotest places. PFCs have been found in distant stretches of Arctic sea ice, and in human breast milk. Studies of long-chain PFCs have found their presence to be associated with the disruption of immune and endocrine systems, neonatal toxicity and death, and testicular and kidney cancers.

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For years, many DWR garments were made using C8, which migrates from the jacket into the water, earth and even the air. A Greenpeace study published in 2016 reported that the concentration of PFCs in outdoor stores was up to 1,000 times higher than the outdoor air. It’s ironic that such an environmentally conscious demographic as outdoorspeople can carry dangerous chemicals into the remotest of rainy places just by wearing a jacket.

Patagonia-fluorocarbons-2
Patagonia

In May of 2015, 200 scientists from around the world signed onto the Madrid Statement, which expressed their concern that not enough was being done by governments, manufacturers and, yes, consumers, to counteract harmful effects of PFCs.

“As a clinical investigator specializing in caring for children with neurodevelopment disorders, I am particularly concerned about the potential of environmental toxins to cause health problems,” said Dr. Stephen Bent, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco who was a signatory to the Madrid Statement. “We have ignored this problem for too long and I hope the Madrid Statement helps bring scientific, political, and industry leaders together to find safer alternatives.”

Few easy solutions

Multiple campaigns by nonprofits like Greenpeace have led to major clothing manufacturers like H&M, Levi’s and Adidas to eliminate, or pledge to eliminate, PFCs. But outdoor gear companies have been slow to follow suit. For example, Patagonia — with a stellar reputation for environmental conservation to uphold — still uses fluorocarbons to manufacture its waterproof gear.

Just because there’s no evidence that C6 is harmful – yet — doesn’t therefore mean that C6 is safe.

As a statement updated earlier this year notes, “A rain shell that stops preventing saturation functionally degrades into a wind shell long before the garment itself wears out. The garment must be replaced more frequently, which constitutes its own environmental problem.”

In a nod to consumer concern, many outdoor companies have switched their DWR finishes from C8 to C6, which is a shorter-chain fluorocarbon that breaks down more easily and hopefully poses less of a threat to humans and wildlife. But in 2014, a group of prominent researchers published the Helsingør Statement on the phase-out from long-chain to shorter-chain PFCs, saying that there’s a lack of research on the uses, properties and biological effects.

As the report reads, “In the absence of clear evidence that the alternatives are a substantial improvement on long-chain PFASs, we think that it is not sufficient that the substitution process of long-chain PFASs leads to just an incremental shift in the type of products that are placed on the global market and will be used by millions of consumers and professional users.”

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In other words: Just because there’s no evidence that C6 is harmful – yet — doesn’t therefore mean that C6 is safe.

Watch what you buy

What does this all mean for consumers? The bad news is that if you own any type of water-repellent object — whether that’s a tent, sleeping bag or rain jacket, or even the wax used on your snowboard — it was made using a type of PFC.

The good news is that alternatives are available. For example, outdoor enthusiasts have been using Nikwax wash-in products to add water-repellency to their old outdoor garments for 40 years. Nikwax is also entirely PFC-free. The company also recently launched Nikwax Hydrophobic Down (NHD), which is being used by companies like Rab and Thermarest to produce PFC-free down jackets and sleeping bags.

Nikwax-Hydrophobic-Down
Nikwax Hydrophobic Down

“It’s great to see the outdoor industry transitioning away from this chemistry,” said Rick Meade, the president of Nikwax North America. “With [NHD], we want to continue to help customers have great outdoor adventures in all weather with the brands they trust.”

Greenpeace has also launched several campaigns to raise awareness of PFCs. The nonprofit recently sent athletes to China and Patagonia to climb mountains in extreme conditions using PFC-free clothing. Detox Outdoor highlights small outdoor companies, like Vaude, Páramo and Rotauf, that have committed to producing weatherproof outdoor gear without using PFCs. While probably unsuitable for most hardcore activities, Fjällräven’s product line is entirely PFC-free as of 2015; Columbia recently announced a PFC-free jacket to debut in 2017.

And more alternatives are on the horizon. The Environmental Protection Agency has been accumulating research on the effects of PFCs for years. Patagonia has invested in companies like Beyond Surface Technologies to develop textile treatments that will be both hardy and fluorocarbon-free. And companies like Jack Wolfskin have set an end date to the transition, stating that they hope to be PFC-free by 2020.

If you’re a concerned customer—and we should all be—the first step is to begin phasing out your PFC use yourself. Beware the phrases “water-repellent” and “stain-resistant” in your purchases until you can confirm that they were manufactured without PFCs. As PFC-free water-repellent is less durable, you will have to re-impregnate your gear with water repellent wash-ins more frequently; make sure those wash-ins are also PFC-free.

Most importantly, contact your favorite brands to urge them to make the switch. After all, staying inside for the next fifteen years is not an option.