Why do we offer safe fabrics?

3 10 2016

Why do we say we want to change the textile industry?  Why do we say we want to produce fabrics in ways that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable?  What could be so bad about the fabrics we live with?

The textile industry is enormous, and because of its size its impacts are profound.  It uses a lot of three ingredients:

  • Water
  • Chemicals
  • Energy

Water was not included in the 1947 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights because at the time it wasn’t perceived as having a human rights dimension. Yet today, corporate interests are controlling water, and what is known as the global water justice movement is working hard to ensure the right to water as a basic human right.(1) Our global supply of fresh water is diminishing – 2/3 of the world’s population is projected to face water scarcity by 2025, according to the UN. Our global water consumption rose six fold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and it’s still growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.

The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations.  Almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths.  Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, and bleaching use water.  And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used before moving on to the next step.  The water is usually returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater, which is returned to our streams, contains all of the process chemicals used during milling.  This pollutes the groundwater.  As the pollution increases, the first thing that happens is that the amount of useable water declines.  But the health of people depending on that water is also at risk, as is the health of the entire ecosystem.

With no controls in place to speak of to date, there are now 405 dead zones in our oceans.  Drinking water even in industrialized countries, with treatment in place, nevertheless yields a list of toxins when tested – many of them with no toxicological roadmap.  The textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet – the 9 trillion liters of water used annually in textile processing is usually expelled into our rivers without treatment and is a major source of groundwater pollution.  Now that virtual or “embedded” water tracking is becoming necessary in evaluating products, people are beginning to understand when we say it takes 500 gallons of water to make the fabric to cover one sofa.  We want people to become aware that when they buy anything, and fabric especially, they reinforce the manufacturing processes used to produce it.  Just Google “Greenpeace and the textile industry” to find out what Greenpeace is doing to make people aware of this issue.

Over 8,000 chemicals are used in textile processing, some so hazardous that OSHA requires textile scraps be handled as hazardous waste.   The final product is, by weight, about 23% synthetic chemicals – often the same chemicals that are outlawed in other products.  The following is by no means an all-inclusive list of these chemicals:

  • Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs), which are endocrine disruptors;
    • o Endocrine disruptors are a wide range of chemicals which interfere with the body’s endocrine system to produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in both humans and wildlife; exposure us suspected to be associated with altered reproductive function in both males and females, increased incidence of breast cancer, abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children.(2)
  • Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
    • o Long-term exposure to low levels can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood, and nervous system. Studies in animals also suggest that the endocrine system and immune system can also be damaged following long-term exposure to low levels of pentachlorophenol. All of these effects get worse as the level of exposure increases.(3)
  • Toluene and other aromatic amines
    • carcinogens (4)
  • Dichloromethane (DCM)
    • Exposure leads to decreased motor activity, impaired memory and other neurobehavioral deficits; brain and liver cancer.(5)
  • Formaldehyde
    • The National Toxicology Program named formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in its 12th Report on Carcinogens.(6)
  • Phthalates –
    • Associated with a range of effects from liver and kidney diseases to developmental and reproductive effects, reduced fetal weight.(7)
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s)
    • A growing body of research in laboratory animals has linked PBDE exposure to an array of adverse health effects including thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and memory impairment, behavioral changes, hearing deficits, delayed puberty onset, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations and, possibly, cancer.(8)
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
    • To date, associations have been found between PFOS or PFOA levels in the general population and reduced female fertility and sperm quality, reduced birth weight, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), increased total and non-HDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and changes in thyroid hormone levels.(9)
  • Heavy metals – cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others
    • Lead is a neurotoxin (affects the brain and cognitive development) and affects the reproductive system; mercury is a neurotoxin and possibly carcinogenic; cadmium damages the kidneys, bones and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as a human carcinogen; exposure to antimony can cause reproductive disorders and chromosome damage.

The textile industry uses huge quantities of fossil fuels  –  both to create energy directly needed to power the mills, produce heat and steam, and power air conditioners, as well as indirectly to create the many chemicals used in production.  In addition, the textile industry has one of the lowest efficiencies in energy utilization because it is largely antiquated.  For example, steam used in the textile manufacturing process is often generated in inefficient and polluting coal-fired boilers.  Based on estimated annual global textile production of 60 billion kilograms (KG) of fabric, the estimated energy needed to produce that fabric boggles the mind:  1,074 billion KWh of electricity (or 132 million metric tons of coal).  It takes 3886 MJ of energy to produce 25 yards of nylon fabric (about the amount needed to cover one sofa).  To put that into perspective, 1 gallon of gasoline equals 131 MJ of energy; driving a Lamborghini from New York to Washington D.C. uses approximately 2266 MJ of energy.(10)

Today’s textile industry is also one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses on the planet: in the USA alone, it accounts for 5% of the country’s CO2 production annually; China’s textile sector alone would rank as the 24th– largest country in the world.(11)

We succeeded in producing the world’s first collection of organic fabrics that were gorgeous and green – and safe.    In 2007, those fabrics won “Best Merchandise” at Decorex (www.decorex.com).    In 2008, our collection was named one of the Top Green Products of 2008 by BuiltGreen/Environmental Building News. As BuiltGreen/EBN takes no advertising dollars, their extensive research is prized by the green building industry (www.buildinggreen.com).

We are a tiny company with an oversized mission.  We are challenged to be a triple bottom line company, and we want to make an outsized difference through education for change  – so that a sufficiently large number of consumers will know which questions to ask that will force change in an industry.  We believe that a sufficiently large number of people will respond to our message to force profound positive change: by demanding safe fabric, produced safely, our environment and our health will be improved.

The issues that distinguish us from other fabric distributors, in addition to offering fabrics whose green pedigree is second to none:

    1. We manage each step of the production process from fiber to finished fabric, unlike other companies, which buy mill product and choose only the color palette of the production run.    Those production process steps include fiber preparation, spinning, weaving, dyeing, printing and finishing; with many sub-steps such as sizing and de-sizing, bleaching, slashing, etc.
    2. We educate consumers and designers on the issues that are important to them – and to all of us. Our blog on the topic of sustainability in the textile industry has grown from about 2 hits a day to 2,000, and is our largest source of new customers.
    3. We are completely transparent in all aspects of our production and products.    We want our brand to be known not only as the “the greenest”, but for honesty and authenticity in all claims.  This alignment between our values, our claims and our products fuels our passion for the business.
    4. We are the only collection we know of which sells only “safe” fabrics.

We serve multiple communities, but we see ourselves as being especially important to two communities:  those who work to produce our fabric and those who use it, especially children and their parents.

    • By insisting on the use of safe chemicals exclusively, we improve the working conditions for textile workers.  And by insisting on water treatment, we mitigate the effects of even benign chemicals on the environment – and the workers’ homes and agricultural land.  Even salt, used in copious amounts in textile processing, will ruin farmland and destroy local flora and fauna if not neutralized before being returned to the local waters.
    • For those who use our fabric, chemicals retained in the finished fibers do not add to our “body burden “, which is especially important for children, part of our second special community.  A finished fabric is, by weight, approximately 23% synthetic chemicals. Those chemicals are not benign.  Textile processing routinely uses chemicals with known toxic profiles such as lead, mercury, formaldehyde, arsenic and benzene – and many other chemicals, many of which have never been tested for safety.

Another thing we’d like you to know about this business is the increasing number of people who contact us who have been harmed by fabric (of all things!) because we represent what they believe is an honest attempt at throwing light on the subject of fabric processing.   Many are individuals who suffer from what is now being called “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance” or IEI (formerly called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity), who are looking for safe fabrics.  We’ve also been contacted on behalf of groups, for example,   flight attendants, who were given new uniforms in 2011, which caused allergic reactions in a large number of union members.

These incidences of fabric-induced reactions are on the rise.   As we become more aware of the factors that influence our health, such as we’re seeing currently with increased awareness of the effects of interior air quality, designers and others will begin to see their way to specifying “safe” fabrics  just as their code of ethics demands.(12)  We feel certain that the trajectory for such an important consumer product as fabric, which surrounds us most of every hour of the day, will mimic that of organic food.

We say our fabrics are luxurious – because luxury has become more about your state of mind than the size of your wallet. These days, people define luxury by such things as a long lunch with old friends, the good health to run a 5K, or waking up in the morning and doing exactly what you want all day long.  In the past luxury was often about things.  Today, we think it’s not so much about having as it is about being knowledgeable about what you’re buying – knowing that you’re buying the best and that it’s also good for the world.  It’s also about responsibility: it just doesn’t feel OK to buy unnecessary things when people are starving and the world is becoming overheated.  It’s about products being defined by how they make you feel –  “conscious consumption” – and giving you ways to find personal meaning and satisfaction.

 

(1) Barlow, Maude, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the coming Battle for the Right to Water, October 2007

(2)World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/ceh/risks/cehemerging2/en/

(3)Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry 2001, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=400&tid=70

(4)Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Publication # 90-101; https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/90-101/

(5)Cooper GS, Scott CS, Bale AS. 2011. Insights from epidemiology into dichloromethane and cancer risk. Int J Environ Res Public Health 8:3380–3398.

(6)National Toxicology Program (June 2011). Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. Retrieved June 10, 2011, from: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/roc12.

(7)Hauser, R and Calafat, AM, “Phthalates and Human Health”, Occup Environ Med 2005;62:806–818. doi: 10.1136/oem.2004.017590

(8)Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/research/mothers-milk/health-risks-pbdes

(9)School of Environmental Health, University of British Columbia; http://www.ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Health_effects_PFCs_Oct_2010.pdf

(10) Annika Carlsson-Kanyama and Mireille Faist, 2001, Stockholm University Dept of Systems Ecology, htp://organic.kysu.edu/EnergySmartFood(2009).pdf

(11)Based on China carbon emissions reporting for 2010 from Energy Information Administration (EIA); see U.S. Department of Energy, Carbon Emissions from Energy Generation by Country, http://www.eia.gov/ cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=90&pid=44&aid=8 (accessed September 28, 2012). Estimate for China textile sector based on industrial emissions at 74% of total emissions, and textile industry
as 4.3% of total industrial emissions; see EIA, International Energy Outlook 2011, U.S. Department of Energy.

(12)Nussbaumer, L.L, “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: The Controversy and Relation to Interior Design”, Abstract, South Dakota State University





Do you believe everything you’re told?

30 03 2011

Most of the time, we try to share information with you (which tends to be impersonal), but blogs are supposed to be personal.  Last week, I had a personal experience I have to talk about.  It was an experience that was entirely daunting, and defined for me the kind of mountain we’re trying to climb.

I had taken a very small hand knotted rug into a local business which specializes in cleaning rugs of all kinds.  The clerk was a personable young man who was writing up the order.  After “Name”, “Address” and “Telephone number” he asked whether I wanted their stain repellent applied to the rug.

Reader, I couldn’t help myself:  not only did I decline, but I mentioned that these stain repellents are (and yes, I used the word) :   toxic.  I mean, fibers ARE something I know a bit about and I had done some research into stain repellents.  Here’s a synopsis of those blogs on finishes in case you missed our blog post about them (click here and here to read those posts):

All stain repellent finishes used in textiles (such as Scotchguard, GoreTex, NanoTex,  Crypton, Teflon) are based on fluorotelomer chemistry – which means it pertains to chemicals which become  perfluorocarbons (PFCs) when they are released into the environment.   PFC’s  break down in the body and in the environment to  Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) , Perfluorooctanyl sulfate (PFOS) and similar chemicals.  These are among the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man.   Scientists noticed that PFOS  was showing up everywhere: in polar bears, dolphins, baby eagles, tap water and human blood. So did its cousin PFOA.    These two man-made perfluorochemicals (PFOS and PFOA) don’t decompose in nature. They kill laboratory rats at higher doses, and are toxic to humans, with health effects ranging from  birth or developmental effects, to the brain and nervous system, immune system (including sensitization and allergies) and some forms of cancer.  Once they are in the body, it takes decades to get them out – assuming you are exposed to no more.  According to Our Stolen Future, the “ PFOS story is likely to emerge as one of the apocryphal examples of 20th century experimentation with widespread chemical exposures: prolific use and almost no testing for safety, until unexpectedly and almost serendipitously, it is discovered as a contaminant virtually everywhere. And as is often the case in these stories, the company producing PFOS products possessed information hinting at its risks but chose not to share their data with regulators or the public for years.”[1]

Alarmed by the findings from toxicity studies, the EPA announced on December 30, 2009, that PFC’s would be on a “chemicals of concern” list and action plans  could prompt restrictions on PFC’s and the other three chemicals on the list. ( The other  three chemicals on the list are polyprominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), phthalates and short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs)  Three of these four chemicals are used in textile processing.)

Although little PFOA can be found in the finished product, the breakdown of the fluorotelomers used in fabric treatments might explain how more than 90% of all Americans have these hyper-persistent, toxic chemicals in their blood. A growing number of researchers believe that fabric-based, stain-resistant coatings, which are ubiquitous, may be the largest environmental source of this controversial chemical family of PFCs.

In January 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approached the eight largest fluorocarbon producers and requested their participation in the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, and their commitment to reduce PFOA and related chemicals globally in both facility emissions and product content 95 percent by 2010, and 100 percent by 2015.

The fluoropolymer manufacturers are improving their processes and reducing their waste in order to reduce the amount of PFOA materials used. The amount  of PFOA in finishing formulations is greatly diminished and continues to go down, but even parts per trillion are detectable. Finishing formulators continue to evaluate new materials which can eliminate PFOA while maintaining performance but a solution is still over the horizon.  One critical piece in this puzzle is that PFOA is also produced indirectly through the gradual breakdown of fluorotelomers – so a stain resistant finish may be formulated with no detectable amounts of PFOA yet STILL produce PFOA when the chemicals begin to decompose.

Now back to me, standing in the office and trying to convey to this nice guy that the finish he’s proposing is not only toxic, but ubiquitous and on the EPA’s “chemicals of concern” list.

Well, the guy insisted that no, indeed, the finish they use is entirely safe and it can even be used around babies.

I was taken aback and thought that maybe they had discovered a new and safe stain repellent that I didn’t yet know about.  So giving him the benefit of the doubt, I asked what it is that they use.  He handed me their brochure:  it was  Teflon!

That means that the finish they’re pushing is just the same old story, based on perfluorocarbons (PFCs) chemistry, which is persistent and bio-accumulative.  This means that once it’s in your blood, your body can not get rid of it.  And it’s found in the blood of 90% of all Americans. 

In animal studies it causes cancer, physical developmental delays, endocrine disruption and neonatal mortality.[2] Do you think that’s safe?

So I tried to let the guy know that his “safe” finish really isn’t, but he clearly thought I was a fringe lunatic.  He even said that they couldn’t advertise something as being safe if it really wasn’t.  That was just like throwing fuel on my fire, because if you’ve been reading our blog – or indeed almost anything having to do with the EPA these days – you’ll know that the government has received much criticism for the absence of consumer protection from chemicals used in products.  There have been some celebrated products (such as sunscreen) which receive a lot of attention, but fabric is especially complex.

But there was clearly no way I was going to gain any ground with this guy, who was as anxious to get rid of me as I was to leave!  And because he can, because nobody is preventing this product from being used in our homes, he’s still telling young mothers that his finish is entirely safe for their babies.





Fabric structures for the new millenium

10 03 2010

Here we are in  the 21st century, with its acute global issues of over-population, loss of natural habitat, carbon emissions and pollution of all kinds — in a nutshell the specter of diminishing resources and climate change.   What’s a good architect to do?  Some are saying that fabric structures – that ancient way of providing shelter – is in a unique position to contribute significantly to a more sustainable built environment.  Fabric structures  have a modest carbon footprint, minimal post-construction refuse, daylighting and water-harvesting capabilities,  and are relatively  easy and inexpensive to replace.     According to Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnestoa, “Living lightly on the land is a key principle of sustainability, and fabric allows for that more effectively than almost any other material.”

Architects are finding new and unique ways of using fabric because there is a not so new polymer in their tool kit:  ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene).  This – some say- is the building material of the future.  It’s a transparent plastic, related to Teflon, and is just 1% the weight of glass, but it transmits more light, is a better insulator and costs 24% to 70% less to install.  It’s also resilient (able to bear 400 times its own weight, with an estimated 50 year life span), is self cleaning (dirt slides off its nonstick surface) and it’s recyclable.

Architects started working with ETFE about 15 years ago, but the material got a boost by being used in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where it’s an integral part of the distinctive designs of both the Beijing National Stadium (called the Bird’s Nest – see photo on right)  and the Aquatics Center (the Watercube, at the left).

ETFE has been described as a sturdier version of plastic cling wrap.  It can be used in sheets or inflated into pillows.  The 750,000 square foot Watercube is the largest ETFE project ever.  It is clad entirely in blue ETFE cushions.  It’s interesting to note that the Watercube is the first time the Sydney, Australia based PTW Architects, who designed the building, had ever used the fabric.  They were that confident.  Some bubbles in the design span 30 feet without any internal framing – a distance that wouldn’t be possible with other materials.

On an aesthetic level, the cushions reinforce the building’s theme. Their pillowy shapes evoke a bubble’s roundness, and their triple-layered construction, which mixes layers of blue film with transparent film, gives the façade a sense of depth and shifting color. And there’s  the fun factor:  ETFE comes in different finishes and colors, and can be lit from within using LED lights or decorated with light projections like a giant movie screen as in the picture.   Once the Olympics  started officials were able to transform the Watercube walls into a giant TV screen showing simultaneous projections of the swimming activities taking place inside.  It can take myriad shapes too: strips can be heat-welded together like fabric squares in a quilt.

But what is ETFE – and what does it mean that it’s related to Teflon?

ETFE was developed by DuPont, working with NASA, as a thermo plastic version of Teflon.  It was designed to have high corrosion resistance and durability to hold up under oppressive cosmic radiation that NASA would expose it to.

But Dr. Stefan Lehnert, a mechanical engineering student at the time, was looking for better foils for the sails on  his sailboat.  He experimented with ETFE and found a transparent, self cleaning, durable and very flexible material with just 1% weight of glass.  It also expands to three times its normal length without losing elasticity and offers shade and insulation control. Dr. Lehnert founded Vector Foiltec in Germany in 1982, where they sold ETFE as the Texlon Foil System.

Today it’s being touted as the new green alternative.  Why?

Affiliates of Brunel University in Middlesex and Buro Happold Consulting Engineers in London did a study of the environmental effects of ETFE manufacture and use for building cladding (it’s primary use).  The study compares ETFE foil cushions to 6 mm glass and concluded the following:

“ETFE foils can improve the environmental performance of a building from two points of view:  there is the opportunity to reduce the overall environmental burden incurred by the construction process itself; and there is also the opportunity to reduce the burden of the building during its lifetime.  This is all dependent, however, on the ability of the architects and engineers to take advantage of both the flexibility and limitations of ETFE foil cushions.”

Using ETFE can accrue LEED points by giving you opportunities for daylighting a structure, reduction of steel for support structures, and it can save on transport costs because of its light weight.  If you reduce the tonnage of steel, and reduce the raw building materials you have a real capacity to lighten up a building.  The Texlon Foil System, according to the company, has low energy consumption during its manufacturing process ,  much of which includes recycled materials.  The film itself is recyclable – the recycling is aided by the absence of additives in the manufacturing process, requiring only the ETFE and heat.    It can also be a tensile structure for renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic panels and provide shade to keep buildings cool in hot climates.

Larry Medlin, professor and director of the School of architecture at the University of Arizona, says:  “Fabric’s multiple capabilities from catching water, trellising plants, daylighting, and providing shade for cooling, are being looked at seriously,” he says. “Fabric can contribute to a regenerative landscape. This is important. It can’t be overlooked.” Medlin also explains that using fabric structures is one way to bring the indoor outside, as in the Edith Ball Center (shown at right), a project that required re-conceptualizing with a more innovative approach. Instead of being enclosed, the Center’s three community pools — lap, therapy and swimming — are under a dynamic, open fabric system that can be adjusted to season and climate.

But what about the material itself?  And is it really recyclable?  There are no life cycle analyses of ETFE that I know of  (please let me know if you’re aware of one and I’ll post it here) so until we know the carbon footprint issues of this product I’m still a bit skeptical, although there seem to be many points in its favor.

ETFE – ethylene tetrafluoroethylene – is a fluorocarbon based polymer, aka “fluoropolymer” – a type of plastic.  We did a blog posting on flurocarbons a few weeks back which can be accessed here. So the material is of the chemical family consisting of a carbon backbone surrounded by fluorine – part of the “Teflon” family of chemicals.  These chemicals as a group are highly suspect, since PTFE (which is the building block for Teflon) has been found to produce PFOA as a by product.  From our blog post:  ” They (perflurocarbons) are the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man. Once they are in the body, it takes decades to get them out – assuming you are exposed to no more. They are toxic in humans with health effects from  increased chloesterol to stroke and cancer. Alarmed by the findings from toxicity studies, the EPA announced on December 30, 2009, that PFC’s (long-chain perfluorinated chemicals)would be on a “chemicals of concern” list and action plans could prompt restrictions on PFC’s and the other three chemicals on the list.”  The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants states that PFOS is used in some  ETFE production.

ETFE is not a derivative of a petrochemical.   It is  manufactured from fluorspar (CaF2), trichloromethane (CHCl3) – called chlorodifluoromethane (CHF2CL) –  and hydrogen sulfate (HSO4).  Chlorodifluoromethane is a raw material classified as a class II substance under the Montreal Treaty on ozone depleting substances.   Class II substances are scheduled to be phased out but have a later timeline than Class I substances.

The by products formed during ETFE manufacture  are calcium sulfate (CaSO4), hydrogen fluoride (HF) and hydrochloric acid (HCl).  The calcium sulfate and hydrogen fluoride are reused to produce more fluorspar which can be used again as in input into the manufacturing process.

The manufactured ETFE is sold as pellets, which are then heated and extruded into sheets 50 – 200 microns thick.

As one pundit has said: if this is a recyclable product, what chemicals are running off into our water supply?  Do we know what those ETFE chemicals do to humans – not to mention cows, tree frogs or trees –  if ingested?

One thing we DO know about ETFE is that fumes given off at 300 degrees Centigrade cause flu like symptoms in humans, and above 400 degrees C – they’re toxic.  (1)  I have seen articles which say it is combustible and others that say ETFE is considered self extinguishing.  What everyone agrees on is that in the event of a fire, the foil will then shrink  from the fire source, thereby self-venting,   and letting  smoke out of the building.

I can’t make up my mind on ETFE as a sustainable building material.  What do you think?

(1)  .   http://www.buildnova.com/buildnovav3/buildingsystems/TensileFabric/tensilefabric.htm





What about soil resistant finishes like Scotchgard, GoreTex, NanoTex and GreenShield – are they safe?

10 02 2010

Last week I promised to take a look at soil and stain repellant finishes to see how each is applied and/or formulated.  Some of these trademarked finishes claim impeccable green credentials, so it’s important that we are able to evaluate their claims – or at least know the jargon!  The chemistry here, as I said in last week’s post, is dense.  The important thing to remember about all these finishes is that they all depend on flurocarbon based chemistry to be effective.

The oldest water repellant finishes for fabrics were simply coatings of paraffin or wax – and they generally washed out eventually.  Perfluorochemicals (PFC’s) are the only chemicals capable of repelling water, oil and other liquids that cause stains. Fabrics finished with PFCs have nonstick properties; this family of chemicals is used in almost all the stain repellant finishes on the market today.  Other materials can be made to perform some of these functions but suffer when subjected to oil and are considerably less durable.

The earliest type of stain resistant finish (using these PFCs)  prevented the soil from penetrating the fiber by coating  the fiber. For use on a textile, the chemicals are joined onto binders (polyurethane or acrylic) that acts as a glue to stick them to the surface of the fabric.  Gore Tex is one of these early coatings – a thin film was laminated onto the fabric; another, manufactured by 3M Corporation for nearly 50 years,  is Scotchgard.   Scotchgard was so popular and became so ubiquitous that “Scotchgard” entered the language as a verb.  

The chemical originally used to make Scotchgard and Gore Tex breaks down into perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, a man-made substance that is part of the family of perfluorochemicals.   PFOS and PFOA have chains of eight carbon atoms; the group of materials related to PFOA and PFOS is called C8 –  this is often referred to as “C8 chemistry”.

An aside on C8 chemistry:

If you recall from last week’s post, the PFC family consists of molecules having a carbon backbone, fully surrounded by fluorine.  Various “cousins” have carbon backbones of different lengths:  PFOS or C8, for example,  has 8 carbon atoms, C7 has 7, and so on.  There is controversy today  about  the so-called  “bad” fluorocarbons (C8 ) and the “good” ones (C6) which I’ll address below.

C8  –  (the backbone  is made of a chain of 8 carbon atoms):  two methods are used to produce two slightly different products:

1)     electrofluorination:  uses electrolysis to replace hydrogen atoms in a molecule by fluorine atoms to create the 8 unit chain containing just carbon and fluorine.  A small amount of PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate) is created during this process.

2)     Telomerisation:  chemical equivalent of making a daisy chain: produces mini polymers by joining single units together in chains.  The usual aim is to produce chains that are an average of 8 units long, but the process is not perfect and a range of chain length will result – ranging from 4 units to 14 units in length. So you can have a C4, C6, C12, etc. In this method a small amount of byproduct called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) is produced.

C6 – this chemistry produces a by-product called PFHA (perfluorohexanoic acid), which  is supposed to be 40 times less bioaccumulative than PFOA.  But it’s also less effective, so more of the chemical has to be used to achieve the same result.  Manufacturers are trying to find smaller and smaller perfluorocarbon segments in their products, and even C4 has been used.  The smaller the fluorocarbon, the more rapidly it breaks down in the environment.  Unfortunatley, the desired textile performance goes down as the size of the perfluorocarbon goes down. “C6 is closest chemically to C8, but it contains no PFOA. It breaks down in the environment – a positive trait – but it doesn’t stick as well to outerwear and it doesn’t repel water and oil as well as C8, which means it falls short of meeting a vague industry standard, as well as individual company standards for durability and repellency.”[1]

Back to Scotchgard:

Scientists noticed that PFOS (the C8 fluorocarbon) began showing up everywhere: in polar bears, dolphins, baby eagles, tap water and human blood. So did its C8 cousin PFOA.   These two man-made perfluorochemicals (PFOS and PFOA) don’t decompose in nature. They kill laboratory rats at higher doses, and there are potential links to tissue problems, developmental delays and some forms of cancer.  Below are tables of results which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released from data collected by 3M and DuPont; some humans have more PFOA in their blood than the estimated levels in animals in this study.  For a complete review of this study, see the Environmental Working Group’s website, http://www.ewg.org/node/21726.

PFOA and PFOS, according to the U.S. EPA:

  • Are very persistent in the environment.
  • Are found at very low levels both in the environment and in the blood of the U.S. population.
  • Remain in people for a very long time.
  • Cause developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals.

Eventually 3M discontinued Scotchgard production.  Yet accounts differ as to whether 3M voluntarily phased out the problematic C8 chemistry or was pressured into it by the EPA after the company shared its data in late 1999.  Either way, the phase-out was begun in December 2000, although 3M still makes small amounts of PFOA for its own use in Germany. 3M, which still monitors chemical plants in Cottage Grove, Decatur, and Antwerp, Belgium, insists there are no risks for employees who handled or were exposed to the chemicals.  Minnesota Public Radio published a timeline for milestones in 3M’s Scotchgard, which can be accessed here.

The phase-out went unnoticed by most consumers as 3M rapidly substituted another, less-effective spray for consumers, and began looking for a reformulated Scotchgard for carpet mills, apparel and upholstery manufacturers.   For its substitute, 3M settled on perfluorobutane sulfonate, or PFBS, a four-carbon cousin of the chemical in the old Scotchgard, as the building block for Scotchgard’s new generation. This new C4-based Scotchgard is completely safe, 3M says. The company adds that it has worked closely with the EPA and has performed more than 40 studies, which are confidential. Neither 3M nor the EPA will release them.

According to 3M, the results show that under federal EPA guidelines, PFBS isn’t toxic and doesn’t accumulate the way the old chemical did. It does persist in the environment, but 3M concluded that isn’t a problem if it isn’t accumulating or toxic. PFBS can enter the bloodstream of people and animals but “it’s eliminated very quickly” and does no harm at typical very low levels, said Michael Santoro, 3M’s director of Environmental Health, Safety & Regulatory Affairs. 3M limits sales to applications where emissions are low.

3M says convincing consumers Scotchgard is safe is not its No. 1 challenge; rather it’s simply getting the new, new Scotchgard out. The brand, 3M maintains, is untarnished. “This issue of safety, oddly enough, never registered on the customers’ radar screen,” said Michael Harnetty, vice president of 3M’s protective-materials division.

Scotchgard remains a powerful brand:  “We still get really good requests like, ‘Will you Scotchgard this fabric with Teflon?’ ” said Robert Beaty, V.P. of Sales for The Synthetic Group, a large finishing house.[2]

Another early soil resistant finish is Teflon, which was produced by DuPont.  Teflon is based on C8 chemistry, and PFOA is a byproduct of the manufacturing of fluorotelomers used in the Teflon chemistry.

There has been a lot of information on 3M, DuPont and these two products, Scotchgard and Teflon, on the web.  The Environmental Working Group  http://www.ewg.org/ has detailed descriptions of what these chemicals do to us, as well as the information on the many suits, countersuits, and research studies.  The companies say their new reformulated products are entirely safe – and other groups such as the Environmental Working Group, question this assumption.

By the way, both DuPont and 3M advertise their products as being “water based” – and they are, but that’s not the point and doesn’t address the critical issues.  In TerraChoice’s “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” this would be considered Sin #5: the sin of irrelevance, which is:  “An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.”

In January 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approached the eight largest fluorocarbon producers and requested their participation in the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, and their commitment to reduce PFOA and related chemicals globally in both facility emissions and product content 95 percent by 2010, and 100 percent by 2015.

The fluoropolymer manufacturers are improving their processes and reducing their waste in order to reduce the amount of PFOA materials used. The amount  of PFOA in finishing formulations is greatly diminished and continues to go down, but even parts per trillion are detectable. Finishing formulators continue to evaluate new materials which can eliminate PFOA while maintaining performance but a solution is still over the horizon.  One critical piece in this puzzel is that PFOA is also produced indirectly through the gradual breakdown of fluorotelomers – so a stain resistant finish may be formulated with no detectable amounts of PFOA yet STILL produce PFOA when the chemicals begin to decompose.

Recently a new dimension was added to stain resistant formulations, and that is the use of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is defined as the precise manipulation of individual atoms and molecules to create layered structures. In the world of nanoscience, ordinary materials display unique properties at the nanoscale.  The basic premise is that properties can dramatically change when a substance’s size is reduced to the nanometer range. For example, ceramics which are normally brittle can be deformable when their size is reduced. In bulk form, gold is inert, however, once broken down into small clusters of atoms it becomes highly reactive.

Like any new technology, nanomaterials carry with them potential both for good and for harm. The most salient worries concern not apocalyptic visions,  but rather the more prosaic and likely possibility that some of these novel materials may turn out to be hazardous to our health or the environment.  As John D. Young and Jan Martel report in “The Rise and Fall of Nanobacteria,” even naturally occurring nanoparticulates can have an deleterious effect on the human body. If natural nanoparticulates can harm us, we would be wise to carefully consider the possible actions of engineered nanomaterials.  The size of nanoparticles also means that they can more readily escape into the environment and infiltrate deep into internal organs such as the lungs and liver. Adding to the concern, each nanomaterial is unique. Although researchers have conducted a number of studies on the health risks of individual materials, this scattershot approach cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the hazards—quantitative data on what materials, in what concentrations, affect the body over what timescales.

As a result of these concerns, in September, 2009,  the U.S. EPA  announced a study of the health and environmental effects of nanomaterials – a step many had been advocating for years.  And this isn’t happening any too soon:  more than 1,000 consumer products containing nanomaterials are available in the U.S. and more are added every day.

And nanotechnology has been used for textiles in many ways: at the fiber as well as the fabric level, providing an extraordinary array of nano-enabled textile products (most commonly nanofibers, nanocomposite fibers and nanocoated fibers)  – as well as in soil and stain resistance.

For scientists who were trying to apply nanotechnology to textile soil and stain repellency, they turned, as is often the case in science, to nature:  Studying the surface of lotus leaves, which have an incredible ability to repel water, scientists noticed that the surface of the lotus leaf appears smooth but is actually rough and naturally dirt and water repellent. The rough surface reduces the ability of water to spread out. Tiny crevices in the leaf’s surface trap air, preventing the water droplets from adhering to the service. As droplets roll off the surface they pick up particles of dirt lying in their path. Using this same concept, scientists developed a nanotechnology based finish that forms a similar structure on the fibers surface. Fabrics can be cleaned by simply rinsing with water.

Nano-Tex (www.nano-tex.com) was the first commercially available nanoparticle based soil repellant fabric finish.  It debuted in December of 2000.  Another nanotech based soil repellant is GreenShield (www.greenshieldfinish.com) which debuted in 2007. Both these finishes, although they use nanotechnology, also base their product on fluorocarbon chemistry.  Nano-Tex’s website does not give much information about their formulation – basically they only say that it’s a new technology that “fundamentally transforms each fiber through nanotechnology”.  You won’t get much more in the way of technical specifications out of Nano-Tex.   GreenShield is much more forthcoming with information about their process.

In the GreenShield finishes, the basic nanoparticle is amorphous silica, an inert material that has a well-established use in applications involving direct human consumption, and is generally recognized as safe and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency for such applications.  The use of silica enables GreenShield to reduce the amount of flurocarbons by a factor of 8 or more from all other finishes and it reduces overall chemical load by a factor of three – making GreenShield the finish which uses the least amount of these flurocarbons.

The GreenShield finish gets mixed environmental ratings, however.   Victor Innovatix’s Eco Intelligent Polyester fabrics with GreenShield earned a Silver rating in the Cradle to Cradle program. However, the same textile without the GreenShield finish (or any finish) earned a higher Gold rating, reflecting the risk of toxicity introduced to the product by GreenShield. Information on product availability is at www.victor-innovatex.com.


[1]PFOA Puzzle – Textile Insights — http://www.textileinsight.com/articles.php?id=37

[2] Bjorhus, Jennifer, “Scotchgard is Attractive Again”, St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 27, 2003