It may come as a surprise or perhaps not surprising at all that a variety of toxic chemicals have been used to make outdoor gear like jackets, shoes, tents, backpacks, and even sleeping bags.
A new report by Greenpeace Germany has documented that “hazardous and persistent chemicals, dangerous to human health and the environment, have been found in the products of leading outdoor brands.”
Greenpeace tested 40 products purchased in 19 different countries and regions. Among the companies whose products were found to be tainted are The North Face, Patagonia, Mammut, Columbia and Haglofs.
The chemicals found embedded in the fabrics of the products these companies make are called poly- and per-fluoronated compounds, or PFCs. PFCs are synthetic chemical compounds that do not exist in nature. They are used by the outdoor gear industry to make products waterproof and dirt-repellent.
As effective as they may be, PFCs have serious human health and environmental impacts. These compounds can cause harm to reproduction, promote the growth of tumors, and affect the hormone system. The National Institute for Environmental Health Science reports that in animal studies PFCs also “reduce immune function; cause adverse effects on multiple organs, including the liver and pancreas; and cause developmental problems in rodent offspring exposed in the womb.”
The Minnesota Department of Health notes that PFCs “are extremely resistant to breakdown in the environment,” so once they are released, they persist for a very long time. They can get into the food chain of animals far from their source. PFCs have been found in animals like dolphins, in polar bear livers, and in human blood. They have also shown up in drinking water and in fish near textile factories in China where much of the clothing and gear is produced.
The gear is not believed to threaten you if you wear it. However, because we all live on one planet, and because once the chemicals are released they circulate all over the world, you could be exposed to them whether you’ve bought the gear or are basically an innocent bystander. Certainly polar bears never wear Polar-tec, yet the chemicals have shown up in their bodies.
What Can You Do?
1) Ask the manufacturer of your gear whether they use PFC compounds for water proofing and repelling dirt. There’s not really much you can do if you already own the gear, other than return the gear to the manufacturer when you’re finished with it, but that’s better than tossing it in the trash.
2) Buy used gear. Since a big source of PFC pollution comes during manufacturing, you can reduce the amount of new products manufactured – and new chemicals emitted – by buying gently used equipment and clothing.
3) Likewise, sell your used gear on EBay or Craig’s List, donate it, or take it to a thrift shop rather than throwing it away. Extend its life as long as possible.
4) Buy gear from companies that have pledged zero discharge of hazardous chemicals into the environment. There aren’t many of them, but one to look at is Paramo, which has issued a “Detox Commitment” that hopefully will inspire its competitors.