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The ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ for PFAS in Fashion

California has become the first state to enact enforceable limits on the intentional use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in many types of clothing and textiles, effectively outlawing from their production a class of “forever chemicals” that persist in the environment and have been linked to hormone disruption, organ damage and certain cancers.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s signing of AB 1817, a.k.a. the Safer Clothes and Textiles Act, into law on Sept. 28 puts the Golden State on a path to phase out PFAS from “any new, not previously owned” apparel, handbags, footwear, upholstery, curtains, towels and bedding by 2025, with a three-year extension for extreme wet-weather gear and carveouts for some types of personal protective equipment, military attire, carpets and rugs. The statute will also require manufacturers to provide a certificate of compliance indicating that their products do not harbor PFAS.

“By banning its use in fabrics, AB 1817 addresses a source of environmental contamination and reduces human exposure to these toxic chemicals,” Democratic Assemblymember Phil Ting, the bill’s author, said in a statement. “This is a first-in-the-nation law to stop the use of these ‘forever chemicals’ in this product category, setting up a national model on the efforts to mitigate PFAS pollution.”

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Newsom vetoed, however, a bill that would have created a publicly accessible database of PFAS-containing products and product components sold and brought into the state. Cost was a factor, as was the potential for overlap with the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s Safer Consumer Products Program, he said in a statement.

“This bill is estimated to cost millions of dollars that would result in increased environmental fee rates or general fund resources for the new contract, staff support and state oversight responsibilities,” Newsom wrote. “With our state facing lower-than-expected revenues over the first few months of this fiscal year, it is important to remain disciplined when it comes to spending.”

Not everyone agreed. Susan Little, senior advocate for government affairs at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said that the law would have given regulators the tools to find out how many PFAS enter and are sold in California, and in what form. Until that happens, agencies will “continue to be in the dark” about PFAS sources.

“California’s sanitation and water agencies are struggling to clean up PFAS,” Little wrote on the nonprofit’s website. “They need to understand where the chemicals are coming from in order to reduce their harmful effects. We’re disappointed Gov. Newsom vetoed this bill. It’s unconscionable that PFAS are polluting our drinking water systems and harming some of our most vulnerable communities.”

Even with its exceptions, the statute will carry significant heft, said Martin Mulvihill, co-founder and managing partner at Safer Made, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund that invests in companies that reduce human exposure to toxic chemicals.

“The new California law has put renewed focus on PFAS-free finishing chemistry,” Mulvihill told Sourcing Journal. “Despite the high-performance extension, we think that the initial bans and labeling requirements will drive the vast majority of brands to PFAS-free alternatives. There are now a number of safer alternatives, for both [durable water repellent] and breathable membrane functionality.”

Because of the size of California’s economy, the law is also expected to reverberate across the broader industry.

“This law is the first of its kind,” Avinash Kar, senior director of the healthy people and thriving communities program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a co-sponsor of the bill, told Sourcing Journal. “And it’s going to help protect the health and environment of Californians and beyond because I think it’s going to have an impact well beyond California, both in the U.S. and the places [where] clothes and textiles are produced and disposed of.”

The bill had widespread, if not universal, support from companies such as Ikea, Patagonia and REI Co-op.

On the opposing side was the American Apparel & Footwear Association, which wrote to Newsom last month to urge him to veto the measure, citing the need for changes to “make it workable,” including tacking on another two years to the effective date to allow manufacturers enough time to “develop viable alternatives and transition product lines.” Other outstanding issues, the trade group said, include a “continued” need to address the “broad” scope of affected products and the “unnecessary burden” of additional certifications.

Another concern: The compliance threshold drop from 100 parts per million (ppm) from 2025-2027 to 50 ppm after 2027. Levels below 100 ppm, the organization argued, risk capturing items manufactured without any intentionally added PFAS, since trace amounts can be found “even on products manufactured with strict chemical management process controls.”

Still, California’s move is only part of what has become a growing trend, said Nathaniel Sponsler, director of AFIRM, an industry group promoting chemicals management in the fashion supply chain. Washington, too, has enacted a law to tackle the manufacture, sale, or distribution of consumer products containing PFAS, including apparel, by 2025. In May, the New York Assembly greenlit a bill that bars the intentional inclusion of PFAS from “common” apparel, a term that encompasses clothing worn on regular and formal occasions but excludes professional uniforms and outerwear intended for extreme conditions. Both the European Union and the United Kingdom could be next to institute a blanket ban.

“I would expect most if not all national and international brands to respond by phasing out PFAS altogether, if they haven’t already,” he told Sourcing Journal. “I think [the] industry sees the writing on the wall very clearly.”

In another sign of things to come, the Environmental Protection Agency in August designated two common PFAS hazardous substances, requiring companies to assess and report to the government if spills occur. While PFOA and PFOS have been on many brands’ restricted substance lists for years, companies that have used and released PFOA or PFOS chemicals are now liable for sites they have contaminated. That could include Wolverine Worldwide, whose former tannery site in Michigan is being assessed as a potential Superfund site and placed under long-term federal oversight, said Ilch Yiliqi, scientist and project manager at the NRDC.

Then there’s the fact that PFOA and PFOS have continued to show up in products tested by environmental nonprofits, Yiliqi told Sourcing Journal. Even manufacturers that shun the substances could be producing them as byproducts of other PFAS chemistries they deploy.

“Having PFOA and PFOS designated as hazardous chemicals should add greater transparency, through reporting requirements, and assurance, through cleanup liability, to companies’ voluntary commitments,” she said. “To protect the health of their customers and to avoid any additional liability, [however], brands and retailers should take a closer look at their supply chain to ensure that all PFAS are eliminated.”