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Chemical take-down: EPA watch-list acid is eliminated from waterproofing at Gore-Tex, Polartec

Some waterproof jackets are lasting too long -- in our landfills. How to adjust technologies to perform in, but be less harmful to, the environment.

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 21 – 25. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Ten years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made an announcement — they weren’t sure how, but a toxic chemical with a tendency to persist in the environment and linger in humans, was showing up in the blood stream of the general U.S. population.

Not to take you too far back to high school chemistry, but the chemical in question, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is a long chain synthetic chemical that doesn’t occur in the natural environment. In lab animals, the chemical has had adverse developmental effects and the EPA was concerned the chemical would bio accumulate in humans, where it could affect reproduction. PFOA’s linger in trace amounts in garments manufactured with the use of the acid, so manufacturers of waterproof garments, which use PFOAs, or C8 chemicals, for durable water repellency (DWR) have been working to eliminate the chemical from their raw materials. As of the end of 2013, W.L. Gore & Associates, makers of Gore-Tex, and Polartec have reached that goal.

“We made an immediate conversion to the best available solution at the time, which was a C6 fluorochemistry, so all of our product line has been converted to at least that chemistry now,” said Chuck Haryslak, product development engineer for Polartec. “We saw it as a must-have, must-do type of thing.”

“The issue was that PFOA is removed very slowly from the body,” said Bernhard Kiehl, leader of W.L. Gore’s Fabrics Division sustainability team. “These short chain DWRs come with residues which behave much better in that respect.”

It’s been a balancing act with one of an outdoor brand’s primary focuses — to make sure products are made to last.

“If you introduce these new technologies, which are more environmentally friendly, you must not compromise the durability of performance and part of the longevity,” Kiehl said. “The risk is if consumers replace their jackets more frequently, that comes with probably a bigger environmental burden than PFOA was presenting.”

“This is definitely a good step, but we have still a persistent product,” said Peter Waeber, CEO of Bluesign technologies, which assesses the sustainability of products based on resource productivity, air emissions, occupational health and safety, water emissions and consumer safety. Both companies are Bluesign-certified and worked with the company to move toward more sustainable operations. It’s not done yet, though, Waeber said, “We have to work in the area of R&D to find alternatives in the future. But we have to be careful. … Sometimes, you change the chemistry, and you come up with a solution that is worse.”

Polartec is already on to the next project, working to eliminate all fluorinated chemistry from their raw materials. They’re shooting to complete that project by the end of the calendar year.

“It’s very aggressive,” Haryslak said. “It’s very possible that maybe the technology won’t be there in order to achieve it, but we’re going to make sure that we stay on top of it.”

— Elizabeth Miller