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Hazardous PFAS Not as Efficacious as Once Thought

As home textile brands such as Sunbrella, Milliken and Nassimi announce plans to remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from their fabrics, a new study finds that those chemicals might not even provide stain resistance as previously thought.

The study, published today in the AATC Journal of Research, found that textiles treated with PFAS chemicals generally did not perform any better than those without the chemicals in resisting stains.

Researchers tested six PFAS-finished and three non-PFAS-finished fabrics using droplets of coffee and oil-based salad dressing. With the water-based coffee stains, none of the PFAS-finished fabrics performed better than the unfinished textiles. The stains were easily removed from both fabrics, and only fabric type—polyester vs. cotton, patterned vs. solid, light vs. dark, etc.—affected stain performance.

With the oil-based salad dressing, some of the PFAS-finished fabrics performed minimally better than those without the finish. But the repellency was lost with abrasion, with the benefits fading once the fabric is worn with use. Researchers also found that the performance differences were greater between different fabric types—colors, patterns, etc.—rather than between those with and without PFAS.

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“It was surprising that these harmful but supposedly indispensable chemicals had no practical benefit,” said lead author Jonas LaPier, a PhD candidate in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. “It makes you wonder what other uses of PFAS are also unnecessary and could be easily eliminated from products without noticeable change in performance.”

PFAS are also commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” since it takes them so long to break down, if at all. PFAS chemicals can leech into the soil and water during production, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products. Of the thousands of PFAS chemicals in existence, some have been linked to harmful health effects.

California, Maine, Vermont and Washington have all enacted legislation regulating the use of PFAS in consumer products such as home goods. As of Jan. 1, product manufacturers must provide written notice to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection regarding any products that contain any intentionally added PFAS.

“PFAS are a public health nightmare and should only be used when essential,” said Carol Kwiatkowski, co-author and scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute, which provided funding for the study. “In the case of these fabrics, they aren’t delivering the desired performance of stain repellency, and like lipstick or car wax, they get reapplied, which introduces more PFAS into the environment and increases the risk of human exposure. There’s simply no justification for continuing to use them in furniture.”  

As part of its phase-out of PFAS, Sunbrella parent company Glen Raven announced it had developed a proprietary cleaning solution to remove oil-based stains, called Sunbrella Extract. With so many home textiles makers eliminating PFAS finishes, the focus of performance is shifting from repelling stains to cleanability.

“The results of the study align with what I’ve seen firsthand,” said co-author Betsy Phillips, Director of Environmental Initiatives of the textile company Maharam. “The presence of PFAS-based finishes doesn’t prevent textiles from staining, especially after the finishes have become worn with use. The best way to prevent staining is to promptly clean up spills. When prompt cleaning isn’t possible, choosing a thicker, darker, patterned fabric will help mask any stains that may permeate. Beyond staining, omitting PFAS is simply better for our health.”