Retailers in Europe are under increasing pressure to crackdown on damaging exposure to toxic polyfluorinated alkyl substances – known as PFAS and widely used in coatings to make your favourite hiking gear water and dirt repellent.

Research from Norwegian NGO Future in Our Hands has revealed the devastating impact that exposure to high levels of PFAS substances has on the health of factory workers in China who produce textiles for western markets.

Oscar-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo visited the European Parliament this week to present Dark Waters, his new film where he plays real-life lawyer Robert Biliott, who uncovered massive PFAS pollution of US drinking water by DuPont.

PFAS are widely known as ‘forever substances’ due to the group of 5000 substances being highly persistent, toxic, very mobile and currently impossible to clean up.

Dangerous levels of exposure to PFAS substances have been linked to lower birth weight in children, vaccine resistance, decreased liver function, increased risk of infections, impaired immune system and increased cholesterol levels. Scientists report that almost every newborn baby worldwide is now contaminated with PFAS.

Future in Our Hands report communities working in and living near manufacture sites across Asia face health risks as a result of exposure to PFAS.

And in Europe, some 100,000 sites are thought to create PFAS pollution. Many PFAS found in the environment are not registered, meaning European authorities are unaware of who is using what, where and how toxic it is.

NGOs are demanding that all PFAS and other persistent or bioaccumulative chemicals are phased out and that EU chemical laws are strengthened.

In June last year, Environment ministers asked the European Commission to phase out all non-essential uses of PFAS. The Netherlands is currently drafting a comprehensive restriction.

To date regulation in Europe has been focused on two substances – known as PFOA and PFOS.

But how to address the release into the environment of PFAS (which may or may not be detectable in the final product) when this takes place beyond the EU’s borders remains a huge challenge.

Anja Bakken Riise from Future in Our Hands said that retailers and brands should take “responsibility for workers in the factories where they produce their goods”.

She added: “While they are benefiting from countries in the south with inadequate environmental regulations and low salaries, factory workers and local communities are left paying the cost of health and environmental pollution.”

Last month the European Environmental Bureau launched ‘Wardrobe Change’, a new campaign for EU action to tackle fashion’s huge environmental impact, including the pollution and climate impact of using swathes of hazardous chemicals to grow, process, dye, and print fibres, often in developing countries. 

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