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  • Rachel Gallagher

Could Your Clothes Make You Sick?

We all love water resistant and stain resistant clothes, right? Well, maybe not. Certain human-made chemicals in our clothes could be making us sick. I don’t know about you, but before I started learning about textiles, I had no idea about this at all. So, what are these sinister chemicals, where do they come from, and what can they potentially do to us? 

These man-made chemicals are called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Or PFAS for short. PFAS are a group of over 4000(!?) chemicals, and while they’re great at resisting heat, stains, grease, and water, they’re probably not so safe for us humans. And yet, PFAS are everywhere - even in our clothes.

PFAS have been used in consumer products (not just clothes) since around the 1950s, and these interesting (read: terrifying) chemicals can be used to keep food from sticking to cookware or packaging, make clothes and carpets stain resistant, and create more effective fire fighting foams. 

Sounds great, right? But wait, we aren’t even at the scariest parts yet!

Exposure to these types of chemicals can come through consuming PFAS-contaminated water or food, using products containing PFAS, or even breathing air containing PFAS. As people and animals are repeatedly exposed to PFAS, some of these chemicals can build up in the body over time (also called bio-accumulation), and because of the way the molecules in PFAS are linked - by a chain of carbon and fluorine atoms - these chemicals do not easily degrade in the environment and end up circling the globe through the ocean or rain. It’s truly scary stuff, with an even scarier nickname: ‘forever chemicals’. 

Bad for humans. Check. Bad for the environment. Check…

PFAS in Our Clothes 

Water resistant or stain resistant clothing can contain PFAS. Your favourite water resistant raincoat, or your trusty stain resistant yoga pants could contain PFAS as well. Fabrics that contain these chemicals are marketed as functional and durable, which makes them a popular choice for people who like the convenience of these high performance clothes, but are maybe unaware of the dark side of what they’re wearing. 

PFAS are still widely used in our clothing, and cause pollution at all stages of clothing production. These PFAS can contaminate air, water, and soil at manufacturing facilities and garment factories, with products coated in these chemicals able to expose consumers directly when they’re used and/or worn. 

PFAS and Health Issues

PFAS have been linked to a range of health risks in human and animal studies. These health issues range from kidney and testicular cancer to hormone disruption, liver and thyroid issues, interference with vaccines, reproductive issues and abnormal development of unborn babies. 

In a study by the C8 Science Panel, PFAS and human diseases were determined to have ‘probable links’. The study monitored 69,000 people in West Virginia in the United States who were exposed to PFAS in their drinking water, and illnesses ‘linked’ to this exposure included things like kidney cancer, thyroid disease, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune disease and so on.

In Australia, the government has worked since 2002 to reduce the use of certain PFAS, but (as far as I can tell) there is currently no way to know if PFAS have been used in the creation of your clothes. In the United States, there are no sweeping laws to warn people about items made with PFAS either (except a new bill in California, AB 1817, to phase out chemicals in clothing and textiles in that state by January 2025). 

What Can You Do About PFAS? 

Truthfully, there’s not a lot that we can do about PFAS. Aside from lobbying for changes to laws and widespread demand for access to information about what chemicals are used to make our clothing, the best we can do is to assume any clothing labelled or advertised with ‘waterproof’, ‘stain-repellent’, or ‘dirt-repellent’ on the tag contains PFAS, unless otherwise stated. 

Tell me something more terrifying, I’ll wait. 

Make sure to check out more bite-sized information about your clothes over on Instagram.


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