The Washington State Department of Ecology has proposed bans and new reporting requirements for toxic chemicals used to repel water, heat and fuel in some clothing, firefighting gear and cleaning products.
In a draft report to the state Legislature published Wednesday, the agency identified safer alternatives for some uses of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” for their pervasiveness.
It recommended restricting, or in some cases effectively banning, the use of the chemicals in clothing, cleaning products as well as car, boat and truck washes where safer alternatives are available. The state also proposed requiring manufacturers to report the use of PFAS in personal protective equipment for firefighters, floor and ski waxes, shoes, gear, sealants and cookware.
The chemicals have been linked to increased risks of some cancers, birth and developmental defects and other health disorders in humans. In the environment, PFAS have been found in the tissue of fish that live in Lake Washington and may bioaccumulate in apex predators like orcas. A recent review cited in the draft report found concentrations of PFAS in rainwater were often higher than environmental and public health limits.
The chemicals have been turning up in drinking water sources near airports and military bases where crews were required to use and train with toxic firefighting foams for decades. As new statewide drinking water testing requirements roll out, the chemicals have contaminated over 200 public water sources so far.
Under the Safer Products for Washington Act, signed into law in 2019, the agency is working to eliminate toxins where safer alternatives are available. Last year, lawmakers required Ecology to make an initial set of proposals on some products containing PFAS by June 2024 and adopt rules by December 2025.
The state this year adopted rules to restrict the use of PFAS in carpets, rugs, leather and textile furnishings as well as stain and water-resistance treatments. During a 60-day public comment period, Ecology received over 900 comments from trade organizations, community groups, manufacturers, nonprofits, chemical industry representatives and others. Public comment will be open on the draft report to the Legislature through Jan. 12.
Ecology chose to look at these uses of the chemicals because it knew they were a significant source, said Erika Schreder, the science director for nonprofit Toxic-Free Future. But that doesn’t mean anyone knows, when you look at the whole pie of PFAS exposure, what size of slice is from clothing or firefighting foam or other sources, Schreder said.
PFAS can be used as a surface treatment, membrane or a layer woven within the fabric of clothing that blocks water or other substances from passing through. The chemicals have been found in raincoats, activewear like hiking pants, sports bras and yoga pants.
People are exposed to the chemicals in clothing through inhalation and skin contact. As the clothing ages and the chemicals in the surface treatment breakdown, the chemicals may become airborne.
High levels of airborne PFAS were found in outdoor clothing shops, according to a study cited in the report. When people throw stain- or water-resistant clothes containing PFAS in their washing machine, those chemicals are discharged into wastewater.
A recent report found an increasing amount of PFAS in King County’s wastewater effluent being discharged into Puget Sound. The county’s systems can’t filter the chemicals out.
The chemicals can also wash off clothing and into the environment directly.
Some companies, like Patagonia, REI and Columbia have already pledged to phase out the use of the chemicals in their products.
Ecology was not yet able to identify safer, feasible and available alternatives for the use of the chemicals in floor waxes and polishes because of a lack of ingredient information. These are likely a significant source of exposure for kids in day care, schools or people who work in spaces like these or congregate living facilities who apply the products.
Ecology has the authority to order ingredient information from companies, said Schreder of Toxic-Free Future.
The agency has not begun looking into safer alternatives for the use of the chemicals in cookware and kitchen supplies or hard surface sealants used on stone counters and concrete floors.
“Ecology needs to use its full authority, and if it needs more resources to do that, it’s an important investment because the dollars it costs to clean up the messes PFAS created to the water supply and well-being and health are far more expensive if we don’t get on top of it now,” said Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, who has sponsored bills restricting the use of the chemicals.
After reviewing public comments, Ecology will submit a final report to the legislature.
If a chemical is restricted, it means the state was able to identify a safer alternative. Ultimately, these restrictions could look like a complete ban, or they could be partial bans or other restrictions based on the amount of PFAS in a product, according to Ecology.
If a reporting requirement is adopted for certain products, manufacturers using PFAS will have to report to Ecology how much of the chemical was intentionally added to the product, the purpose and a description of the product.