Your Sleeping Bag Could Be Toxic

A Greenpeace study finds that environmentally hazardous PFCs are widespread in outdoor equipment.

(Photo: Marlene Ford/Getty Images)

Jan 25, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Toxic chemicals with potential health and environmental impacts are widely used in the manufacture of outdoor clothing and gear, according to a Greenpeace study released Monday.

The environmental activist group found traces of poly- and perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) in 36 of 40 products they tested, according to the report.

Chemicals such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are used to make moisture-wicking and water-repellent equipment, including jackets, pants, sleeping bags, boots, and tents. The compounds help keep campers and hikers dry and dirt-free, but they are hazardous to the environment and human health, Greenpeace says. The chemicals are also widely used in common household items such as nonstick cooking pans and fire-retardant foam.

“PFCs are environmentally hazardous substances, which are persistent and durable,” said Mirjam Kopp, detox outdoor global project leader for Greenpeace. “Once released in the environment, many of them degrade very slowly and enter the food chain, making pollution almost irreversible.”

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In a previous report, Greenpeace said it found traces of PFC in some of the most remote lakes on the planet, in dolphins and polar bears, and in human blood.

Greenpeace tested products from outdoor brands such as The North Face, Jack Wolfskin, Patagonia, Mammut, Norrona, and Salewa.

“Brands like The North Face and Mammut are not walking their talk of love and respect for nature when it comes to the chemicals they use in the production chain,” Kopp said. “Together with the outdoor community, we challenge them to show us what true leadership and respect for nature means. Stop using hazardous chemicals and detox their gear now.”

Patagonia and The North Face have both pledged to replace products treated with long-chain PFCs (like PFOAs) with fluorocarbon-based treatments that break down more quickly in the environment.

“This is a topic we have been working on urgently for several years—nothing to do with Greenpeace’s campaign efforts, frankly,” Patagonia’s director of communications, Adam Fetcher, wrote in an email.

The Ventura, California–based company announced in a blog post that it has switched its outerwear treatments from long-chain (C8) fluorocarbon-based finishes to shorter-chain treatments (C6) that contain less potential toxicity over time to humans, wildlife, and water. Patagonia’s 2016 spring clothing line is C8-free, the company said.

“Patagonia’s temporary solution, which is also being adopted by a number of manufacturers, is not good enough, but it’s the best option we have found so far,” the company wrote. “Meanwhile, we continue to actively research and develop DWR (durable water repellent) chemistries that will afford high performance with less environmental impact.”

Greenpeace also tested equipment from Haglöfs, a Swedish outdoor brand, which announced in 2012 it was working to remove PFOAs from its products. Kopp said Greenpeace found PFOA traces in a Haglöfs boot purchased from a store in Norway. The country banned PFOAs in consumer products in June 2014.

“The tested (boot) was produced in 2014, and all remaining boots will today be withdrawn from the market,” Haglöfs wrote in response to the Greenpeace report.

The four products Greenpeace says tested PFC-free included two jackets—one by Vaude and one from Jack Wolfskin—a backpack by Haglöfs, and a pair of gloves from The North Face.

“These results show that it is possible to produce jackets, backpacks, and gloves with all the requirements without the use of PFCs investigated in this study,” the Greenpeace report said.