Fair or Foul?
We take a deep dive into the science of organic chemistry to find out if your foul-weather gear is dangerous.
It was raining cats and dogs. And because I prefer to dock my boat from the flybridge, where there’s unobstructed visibility but little more than a blue bimini to protect me from the elements, I wound up standing smack dab in the midst of the melee. Which caused me, rather sooner than later, to discover that I was getting exceptionally wet, especially around the neck and shoulders, in spite of the fact that I was wearing my Mountain Hardwear rain jacket. After I backed the boat into her slip and we’d tied up, I went below to investigate. The situation became immediately clear—my four-year-old rain jacket had essentially deconstructed itself from the inside out. Whether due to the Florida heat, age or whatever, the inner layers had crumbled into nothingness.
“I need to buy a new rain jacket,” I told myself.
Then things got a little complicated. A mere day or two later I came across an article in the New York Times suggesting that the waterproof or water-resistant gear worn by firefighters was likely toxic, causing various forms of cancer, liver damage and other health problems. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame, the article said, had found that dangerous, so-called “forever chemicals” (scientifically known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs) were shedding from the protective clothing or in some cases migrating into the inner layers of the clothing. And these chemicals, which have incredibly long shelf-lives, were harming people and the environment. Firemen were getting sick. Some states were moving to establish bans. Drinking water was contaminated. More studies were called for. It was a hot mess.
Since I was preparing to fork over hard-earned cash for a new rain jacket, I read the article very carefully. Could it be, I wondered, that the folks who were manufacturing waterproof gear for boaters were using the same chemical coatings that were keeping firemen dry?
I tapped into an investigatory piece in Wired next. It was entitled, “The Race to Design a Rain Jacket That Won’t Kill the Planet,” and from it I gathered that, indeed, environmentally-problematic waterproof coatings created from fluorinated chemicals are absolutely not exclusive to the firefighting realm—they play a major role in the manufacturing of rain gear for outdoors enthusiasts, including boaters. I also gathered that the companies that serve the enthusiasts, like Patagonia, Helly Hansen, W.L. Gore and others, have been trying to develop sustainably produced, environmentally responsible, waterproof and water-resistant technologies to replace problematic PFAS-laden coatings for well over a decade now, with only limited success.
One of the reasons for the slow-go, apparently, was the flat-out effectiveness of PFASs. The darn things are so repellent, familiar and easy to apply that it’s difficult—if not almost impossible—to invent another chemical coating that favorably compares. PFASs, after all, have been around a long time. They first saw the light of day in the late 1950s with non-stick products like Teflon, used in cookware, carpeting and on upholstered furniture. Their ability to repel dirt, grease, oil and water seemed nothing short of miraculous. Even today, despite a host of bans by regulatory agencies around the world, they’re still doing a bang-up job of sluicing water off rain jackets and other gear, as well as figuring into thousands of other everyday applications, from microwave popcorn bags to cellphone screens, automotive seating, shaving cream, fast-food hamburger wrappers and shampoo. The ongoing popularity of PFASs was pretty darn mystifying to me, I gotta say, given the obvious health and environmental risks associated with them. What was going on exactly? Was buying a new rain jacket really going to kill the planet? Or even me?
To get some answers, I decided to dial up an expert or two employed by the companies that are trying to develop PFAS-free rain jackets and other apparel. Patagonia seemed like a good place to start, given the company’s solid reputation for sustainability, environmental responsibility, ethical business practices and the reduction of environmental impacts. I connected with the man who’s leading the charge on PFASs for Patagonia, Matt Dwyer, the company’s senior director of materials innovation.
“What makes these PFASs so totally great,” I asked him, “that we can’t find a reasonably responsible substitute?”
“Fluorine,” Dwyer replied, without missing a beat. “It’s a critical chemical element in all PFASs and has the lowest surface energy (and therefore the highest surface tension) known to man.”
Dwyer then explained that PFASs’ off-the-charts surface tension (the true measure of all forms of repellency) makes it essentially a shield against virtually every other substance on Earth—water, oil, dirt—you name it.
“And that is basically why,” he concluded, “Patagonia and our competitors are having so much trouble coming up with a replacement for fluorine-based chemical coatings. There simply is not, by the basic laws of physics, another chemistry in existence anywhere that can manifest the same level of surface tension, durability and repellent performance as fluorinated chemicals.”
My mind tends to run on one lonely track. So, Dwyer’s exegesis—and his ensuing mentions of nano textures and technologies and mechanical options as possible solutions to the PFAS problem—failed to shift my focus from the reason I’d gotten into this whole organic chemistry thing in the first place. “What if I want to buy a Patagonia rain jacket that’s PFAS-free right now?” I asked. “Can I do such a thing? Your website says Patagonia is promising to have 85 percent of all of its products PFAS-free by 2022?”
“Sorry,” responded Dwyer, “we’re not going to have anything right now, I’m afraid. But maybe this fall or next season. The 85 percent you bring up refers to what we call non-critical products, meaning they’re not typically subject to the harsher conditions. It doesn’t include the high-tech stuff like shells, rain jackets and mountaineering equipment. Those garments require a more complex level of performance, and more developmental time is required.”
Hope, of course, springs eternal. As soon as I’d gotten off the phone with Dwyer, I managed to get a hold of Brady Barry, stateside marketing manager for Norwegian manufacturer Helly Hansen. Helly had a new PFAS-free fabric called Lifa Infinity Pro, said Barry, Lifa being more of a mechanical, as opposed to a chemical, approach to the PFAS problem. The components of the fabric are hydrophobic and composed in a way that causes water to bead up and fall off, Barry continued, and because Lifa has no protective chemical layer to wear away, Lifa garments are likely to be more durable and longer lasting than PFAS-coated garments.
However, I got a big fat “No” when I asked Barry if there was a chance of purchasing a Lifa Infinity Pro rain jacket from Helly in the near future. “I am sorry,” he added. “We really don’t have PFAS-free rain gear for boaters just yet, although there may be something coming later this fall.”
I took one final shot at buying a PFAS-free rain jacket, this time from W.L. Gore, the USA-based maker of Gore-Tex rainwear and supplier for numerous other rainwear brands (Arc’teryx, The North Face, Marmot, etc.) and got about the same response I’d received from Patagonia and Helly, although the Gore rep I talked to touted the progress already made by the company, with well over half of its consumer garment laminates currently free of hazardous chemicals.
“But unfortunately,” said Senior Account Manager Alexa McRoberts, “W.L. Gore does not have PFAS-free rain jackets available yet.”
Was I dispirited by this final bit of lugubrious news? No, not really, even when it was piled atop the other lugubrious news I’d been handed earlier. The situation, it turned out, wasn’t as dire as I’d imagined in the beginning. As luck would have it, during my conversation with Dwyer at Patagonia, I’d posed a question that had produced a reasonably hopeful answer, at least for the average boat guy trying to buy a new, risk-free, environmentally responsible rain jacket.
“Based on my reading, it seems like wearing the existing products—the jackets with PFAS coatings—could be bad,” I said. “Chemicals that cause cancer and other health issues travel from the fabric through the skin into the bloodstream. Is that what happens?”
“Not at all,” Dwyer replied. “That’s an impression we’ve been trying to correct for quite some time now. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wearing just about any of the rain jackets on the market today—you can lick the darn things and you’ll be fine. The dangerous chemical buildup in the environment and within your own bloodstream is coming primarily from our water supply. Wastewater mismanagement by manufacturers has been going on for decades—I mean, they just dumped the stuff into the rivers untreated. Then, because of the nature of these chemicals, once they get into the water supply they get into your bloodstream and the environment and they just stay there—the shortest half-life on one of these things is, I think, something like 80 years.”
“Then just about any new rain jacket is safe to wear?” I asked, just to be sure.
“Absolutely,” Dwyer replied. “In fact, once you buy one of ‘em, you might think about taking really good care of it—all of that old stuff’s going to be phased out of existence over the next few years, and there’s a good chance it‘ll perform way better for you than anything we can invent to replace it.”