BOSTON (SHNS) – One of the top manufacturers of jeans is leading the country in implementing policies aimed at eliminating the use of “forever chemicals,” substances that have been linked to negative health effects, according to a new report released by a national research group.
Following a survey of the 30 top U.S.-based apparel brands and retailers, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) highlighted a decision Levi Strauss & Co. made to eliminate all PFAS from its supply chains and products, with Levi’s stating publicly that it knows eliminating the chemicals “is the right thing to do for our environment.”
“This decision was not taken lightly. We feel strongly that the health and safety of our consumers and the environment outweighs those performance benefits,” former Vice President of Sustainability Michael Kobori said in a December 2019 statement announcing the move.
U.S. PIRG’s report also indicated that Victoria’s Secret and Deckers Brands — a parent company of several well-known apparel brands — have also phased out all PFAS use while Ralph Lauren, American Eagle, and Gap Inc. have committed to phasing out the chemical.
The majority of companies surveyed, according to the report, have “weak” PFAS policy commitments, with 18 receiving a grade of D or lower on an accompanying scorecard, including Walmart, Macy’s, and Nordstrom.
“The list of companies that have already phased out or have committed to phasing out all PFAS is composed of some of the best-known apparel brands in the United States,” the report read. “Their commitments should serve as a call for the rest of the industry to follow suit.”
Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group Legislative Director Deirdre Cummings said toxic chemicals like PFAS are used in manufacturing and end up in a wide variety of consumer products from rain jackets to firefighting equipment and burger wrappers to carpets.
“The problem is that these chemicals are toxic to human health and persist in the environment, in our bodies for so long,” Cummings said at a press conference outside the State House Wednesday morning. “The presence of PFAS in our lives is incredibly worrying.”
PFAS substances typically appear in clothing as coatings or in membranes to make products waterproof, stain resistant, and breathable. The research group says this leads to PFAS pollution throughout a product’s lifecycle — from manufacturing the chemicals to their use by customers and finally, to their disposal.
Exposure to the substances has been linked to thyroid disease and kidney cancer, among other health effects. Authors of the report say apparel manufacturers and retail stores don’t need to wait for laws to catch up to help curb the proliferation of PFAS.
“They can get out in front of the regulatory curve and protect their customers and the planet from PFAS pollution by immediately adopting policies to end the use of PFAS in clothing, footwear, and accessories,” the report reads.
The report found the outdoor apparel industry is largely lagging behind in eliminating PFAS, with the majority of outdoor brands surveyed by U.S. PIRG receiving a D or below. Only two outdoor apparel companies of the ones surveyed have committed to time-bound policies to phase out all PFAS from their products — Patagonia by 2024 and L.L. Bean by 2026.
Environment Massachusetts State Director Ben Hellerstein said when people are enjoying the great outdoors, they shouldn’t have to worry about whether they are contaminating the environment.
“We know that having these chemicals in our clothing poses a danger not just to us but to the natural environment as well and that’s unacceptable,” he said. “We’re encouraged to see companies moving in the direction of phasing out these chemicals but more action is definitely needed.”
In Massachusetts, MASSPIRG is pushing policy proposals that seek to ban the use of PFAS in food packaging (H 2348 / S 1494), carpets, personal care products (H 2350 / S 1387), firefighting equipment (H 2475 / S 1576), and prohibit the use of pesticides with PFAS in the state’s mosquito control program (H 937 / S 556).
The push to ban chemicals from firefighting clothing is not new on Beacon Hill, and bills from Rep. James Hawkins and Sen. Diana DiZoglio are sitting in the House Steering, Policy, and Scheduling Committee and Senate Ways and Means Committee, respectively.
Paul Jacques, legislative agent for Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, said the gear firefighters use to keep them safe is also putting them at higher risk for occupational cancer due to the presence of PFAS substances.
“Our members put their lives on the line every single day, all while relying on our gear to protect us from the dangers that we face as firefighters,” he said.
PFAS proliferation has also prompted the Legislature to study the effects of the chemicals and come up with recommendations to combat further pollution. A task force consisting of lawmakers and other experts was originally scheduled to turn in a final report to the Legislature in December 2021.
The group, chaired by Rep. Kate Hogan and Sen. Julian Cyr, received a deadline extension to June 30 as part of an amendment in a midyear spending bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed last week. A spokesperson for Hogan’s office said the task force expects to announce their findings and recommendations by the end of April.