GORE-TEX, PFCs, and Pollution: Harmful Chemicals In Outdoor Gear
Many of us remember the commotion when Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott exposed the dangers posed by chemicals used in the manufacture of Teflon. The nonstick coating on cooking pans was shown to be a danger to the environment and our own health. Consumers responded via a mixture of reactions, with some throwing out their nonstick cookware and others accepting the risks carelessly. To their credit, manufacturers responded by removing the harmful chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) from their newer products. With that victory, America’s consumers were freed from unsafe chemicals in their daily lives. Or so they thought. But it turns out that harmful chemicals in outdoor gear are just as common.
Rain jackets, boots, gloves, and other equipment made using high-performing GORE-TEX waterproofing have historically contained PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and PFOS (perfluoro-octane sulfonic acid). For those, like me, that aren’t chemically literate, this essentially means that waterproof materials are made with harmful chemicals.
PFOA, PFAS, and PFOS all belong to a broader family of substances known as PFCs (perfluorochemicals). PFCs are unnatural, synthetic chemicals that have long carbon chains and last a long time. The long-lasting nature of these chemicals is what makes them popular choices for manufacturers and what makes these chemicals a threat to our environment; they don’t break down once they leach into our soils and waterways. Further, these chemicals tend to bioaccumulate, meaning they are slowly building up in the bloodstream of animals, and once accumulated they do not disappear. This has led PFCs to be classified under the moniker, “forever chemicals.”
These forever chemicals are here to stay. The chemicals used a decade ago are still circulating in our environment and in our bodies. Studies have shown concentrations of PFCs in nearly every living thing. Regardless of how careful we are not to expose ourselves, our food and water contain traces of them. PFCs are plausibly in each of us, although the research is still out on what that means.
We know PFOA, PFAS, and PFOS to be harmful. But exchanging these known harms for a new variety of fluorochemical doesn’t solve the problem, because by design it will likely have the same hazardous properties. Simply switching our use to a PFC that isn’t listed as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency won’t fix the root of the problem. Just because we don’t know if a new PFC causes harm doesn’t mean it won’t. The key is to find alternatives that aren’t PFCs and won’t be harmful.
So what’s this about PFCs in outdoor gear? The properties that make these forever chemicals a threat are exactly why they’re used in outdoor gear. They don’t break down in water and are resistant to flame, which means outdoor equipment containing these chemicals performs well in adverse conditions. Rain jackets made with PFCs keep us dry when mother nature deals us her worst, and tents will keep us protected from the elements and stand up against the Jetboil you left on beneath the vestibule.
Almost all tents contain traces of PFCs. And the GORE-TEX logo that is pervasive in outdoor apparel also means PFCs are pervasive. And it’s not just GORE-TEX that contains forever chemicals. Most waterproof apparel, from rain jackets to boots, will contain PFCs of some variety.
Amidst all this confusion, here’s a piece of good news. The rain jacket you wear is not a direct threat to your health. Outdoor apparel has been tested for human health and safety, and your use of a product containing forever chemicals likely isn’t a source of contamination.
Phew, we’re safe from harm. Why, then, should we be concerned about the use of these chemicals in the products that keep us adventuring? Well, the use of these products is harmful to the environment we recreate in. If outdoor equipment is continually manufactured using PFCs, then those chemicals will be added to soils and waters, where they won’t break down. As outdoor enthusiasts, we should be concerned about this.
We can’t settle for seeing our woods, waters, and wildlife degraded by hazardous chemical use in the products that we use to explore those very places. If that’s the case, then we are guilty by association of polluting our treasured lands. The solution is to be responsible consumers. We must demand products that don’t contain PFCs.
If we’ve known for years that PFCs are hazardous, why have we continued to use them? Because they work. The outdoor industry’s brightest minds haven’t figured out the silver bullet solution for a material that is waterproof and breathable yet doesn’t contain forever chemicals. The brands we trust to keep us protected from the elements won’t compromise performance. That’s why we continue to see PFCs in our apparel, and continue to stay dry when the skies open up. Until the perfect solution is introduced, and research indicates we’re close, we must accept the impact of our apparel.
The silver lining here is that the outdoor industry’s best brands also care about the environment. They’re collaborating to develop, research, and test new technologies that are free from PFCs of Environmental Concern and don’t negatively alter the product’s performance. As consumers, we may finally be seeing the fruit of that work.
In the fall of 2021, GORE-TEX debuted a new waterproof membrane technology that was free of PFCs. Those new eco-friendly products should be hitting the market by the end of 2022 and into 2023. The company achieved this milestone through the use of PTFE instead of PFCs of Environmental Concern. PTFE is a fluoropolymer that is more environmentally sound than other PFCs because it does not degrade into the environment nor does it dissolve in water, where it would enter the water cycle and be taken up by animals.
It’s important to note that GORE-TEX’s victory is only a partial one. They eliminated PFCs of Environmental Concern from the waterproof membrane, but every article of waterproof clothing also contains a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating. DWR finishes are common across rain jackets, boots, gloves, and even hiking pants and mid-layers. As of now, most DWR finishes contain PFCs, but GORE-TEX has pledged to eliminate those, too.
Hopefully, other equipment manufacturers will follow GORE-TEX’s lead in moving away from PFCs of Environmental Concern. To that end, Fjallraven, the Swedish manufacturer of high-quality trekking apparel and equipment, eliminated PFC-impregnated textiles from their products as early as 2012. They are still working to remove PFCs from waterproof zippers, however. Fjallraven has been transparent in acknowledging that their PFC-free textiles don’t have the waterproof durability of alternatives containing PFCs.
When that waterproofing eventually fades away, Fjallraven products can be treated with an eco-friendly spray that remains PFC-free to restore the product’s water repellency. Similarly, Nikwax, a popular maker of aftermarket waterproofing, cleaning, and conditioning treatments for outdoor gear, is well aware of the hazards posed by PFCs. They have pledged that none of their treatments use fluorocarbon-based water repellency.
Rab, a UK-based manufacturer of apparel, packs, and equipment, is a climate-neutral company. Beyond caring about emissions reductions, Rab is shifting away from DWR containing fluorochemicals. They’ve already implemented PFC-free water resistant finishes on products like the Arc Eco Jacket, but are still working on a high-performing DWR finish for more technical products that is free of harmful fluorocarbons. Nearly half of Rab apparel containing DWR is free of PFCs, and 98% of fabrics used for Rab/Lowe Alpine packs are already there.
These are all good things. Equipment producers are on board with going PFC-free, and tent manufacturer Nemo is a step ahead of the competition. In 2022, Nemo launched a proprietary fabric in a few of their best-selling tents that is made from 100% recycled fabric and doesn’t contain harmful flame-retardant chemicals or fluorinated water repellents. They achieved this through a tight nylon and polyester weave that is not only safer for the environment, but also performs better. Their OSMO weave repels water better, dries quicker, and stretches less when wet. You can find this fabric on their popular Dagger backpacking tent or lightweight Hornet tent, but look for it on more products in 2023.
That leaves at least a touch of good news. The outdoor industry clearly still has work to be done before outdoor equipment is completely PFC-free, but they’re already making impressive strides and are committed to solving this puzzle. That leave us consumers with an obligation to be responsible. We must at least be educated and aware of the impact of our purchases on ourselves and our planet, and from there we can choose how to proceed.
Me? I’ll continue to explore new places and spend my free time outside. That means I need gear I can count on. I understand some harmful chemicals in outdoor gear are inevitable and I’ll carry guilt for that, but I value mountain sunsets too much to give up that equipment. My GORE-TEX jacket works well, and I’ll continue to use it. But I look forward to supporting Nemo, Nikwax, Fjallraven, Rab, and other brands that pursue PFC-free products as I upgrade my equipment.
And here’s the last thing we can do: buy high-quality, durable gear. No matter whether the gear we purchase contains PFCs or not, it has an environmental impact. Buying long-lasting gear is not only better for our wallet but also for our planet, since it means discarded equipment ends up in landfills less.
The first step toward change is education. If you learned something about the gear that fuels your outdoor adventures through this article, then we’re on the right track. Now we can move forward to a cleaner, more sustainable future where outdoor adventure remains central to what we do.
by: Will Babb