Check Your Raincoat, Check Your Napkin. One Study Shows 75% of Tested Water-Resistant Products Contain PFAS

The Guardian reported PFAS contamination in napkins, hiking pants and more. What are some of the risks linked to PFAS's vast reach?
By: | February 12, 2022

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl, chemicals are easily becoming the next “big risk” in the environmental space, as more and more news outlets report on the dangers of these “forever chemicals.”

Most recently, a report from The Guardian found that nearly 75% of stain- and water-resistant products contain PFAS. Jackets, hiking pants, mattress pads — even napkins — are just some of the every day items laced with these hazardous materials.

“The chemicals are applied as a surface treatment to create a barrier against stains and water, or are used to create a membrane that makes rain gear more ‘breathable.’ As the barrier or membrane breaks down, the chemicals can end up in the air and inhaled, or on surfaces where they can be ingested,” The Guardian reports.

This isn’t good news to anyone’s ears, especially those in the environmental space looking to underwrite the risk.

A History of PFAS

Where did these “forever chemicals” come from? Why are they even called “forever chemicals?”

PFAS are a class of about 9,000 chemicals used to make products water, stain and heat resistant. Manufacturers started using PFAS in water resistant products around the 1950s, and while the goods themselves are safe, the chemicals have made their way into the atmosphere and into groundwater via factory emissions and waste disposal, as well as material breakdown.

Communities with prolonged exposure to environmental PFAS have experienced a number of adverse health impacts, including several forms of cancer.

They have been dubbed “forever” because of the chemicals’ inability to naturally break down once leaked into the air, ground and water.

“It’s unknown how long they last in the environment, but studies have shown that PFAS in the blood have a half-life of nine years,” Chris Carleo, technical director, The Vertex Companies, told Risk & Insurance several years ago when PFAS were starting to come to light as a threat.

The PFAS Response

Human health and well being is of utmost importance, especially as more products containing PFAS are reported. Cancer, thyroid disease, immune disorders, abnormal liver function and more have all been linked back to PFAS exposure.

There are even reports stating PFAS are linked to increased risk of contracting COVID-19, because the chemicals can suppress the immune system, leaving it susceptible to elevated levels of coronavirus.

Because of the human factor, regulators are taking note of these forever chemicals.

“For the third straight Congress, legislation is moving to speed the cleanup of contaminated sites and to expand the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate PFAS under several different environmental statutes. The House Energy and Commerce Committee reported comprehensive PFAS legislation to the House of Representatives on June 23, 2021,” a Venable article reported.

Personal injury liability suits are entering court, too. Recent settlements have reached more than $600 million in some cases, and that’s likely just the start as knowledge of PFAS spread.

Manufacturers will not be the only parties held responsible, because climate change is further increasing the risk of this exposure. The biggest spreader of PFAS is water. Flooding, catastrophic storms and even the everyday movements in the water cycle can bring PFAS into the homes of millions, leaving manufacturers, retailers, governmental entities and more in the line of fire for potential legal action.

Where to Learn More

The critical risks facing the environmental space are a plenty, and those trying to get a grip on PFAS are best served by reviewing the human health risks first and foremost.

It’s also key to review how environmental underwriters and brokers are responding, particularly when looking to add environmental liability to the mix of risk mitigation tools.

And check out The Guardian’s report here. In addition to listing out the products its study tested, The Guardian looks into which retailers are selling these products and the potential brand and reputation risks posed — especially for the brands touting green credentials, only to find several PFAS-related items in stock on their shelves. &

Autumn Demberger is a freelance writer and can be reached at [email protected].

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