What exactly is PFAS? Do we really need a PFAS finish on our protective garments? And are there alternatives to PFAS? These are all questions we sometimes get from our customers. Today we’d like to transparently explore the answers to these questions together with you.
Per fluorinated substances (commonly known as PFAS) are often used on our protective fabrics sold throughout Europe, specifically for use in protective clothing requiring chemical splash protection (EN ISO 13034). At the same time, these kinds of finishes are also water repellent. Hence, we often come across both used in combination. The question is whether the usage of PFAS is necessary? That’s because PFAS are seen as potentially harmful according to REACH Regulations but the use of these substances as a finish for protective fabrics is still allowed.
Before we take a look at whether or not you need a PFAS finish on your team’s garments, let’s better understand the motivations for using finishes on garments by briefly examining the history of the protective fabric industry.
Looking back at industry developments
If we look back in history, we see a growing trend for fabric manufacturers to competitively keep adding features to their protective fabrics to ensure wearers are protected against multiple risks – today known as ‘multi-risk’ or ‘multi-norm’. The emergence of this began back in the 60s when flame and heat resistant fibres were first created.
Due to technological and industrial developments, the number of risks industrial workers nowadays encounter is greater than ever before. Next to the protection against heat and flames, they need arc flash protection, protection against molten metal splashes from welding, it had to be anti-static, high visibility was needed, water repellence was required for outdoor usage and also chemical splash protection became a standard. Multi-norm was born and today has become a standard. It makes life easier as it allows many companies to choose a one-size-fits-all solution for their protective clothing even when workers are only exposed to part of these risks.
Rethinking the need for multi-norm?
But is all this protection really necessary? Is it not more of a hindrance than a help? The answer is not as clear cut as many of us would like. And the answer is really, ‘well, it depends’.
That’s because every industry or job type requires a different level of protection when it comes to protective clothing. Although it might be easy to have one garment that can protect all employees against various risks, it’s also a fact that in doing so you will have an over-engineered solution because workers simply don’t need to be protected against all of those risks. So multi-norm might be the most cost-effective and easiest solution, but it could also lead to choosing certain fabrics that might be less comfortable because it needs to protect against a multitude of risks. Added to that and on the other side of the spectrum, you might even have an under-engineered solution – one that just doesn’t offer the optimal protection for specific applications like protection to molten metals.
So, when looking for the most comfortable and best possible protective solution for each job (as well as the most cost-effective), then multi-norm might not be the best solution. And when it comes to PFAS finishes specifically, one can question whether workers really need chemical splash protection. This form of protection is more likely needed in the chemical industry and some other industries where workers may be exposed to chemicals, but in many cases, the risk is not there. So why would one still want to have a PFAS finish especially since the substance would need to be re-applied by the industrial laundry every time the garment is washed?
PFAS-finish and water repellence? What’s the link?
Having chemical splash protection automatically means there’s a combination of standard chemical protection plus water repellence. And it’s this very combination that requires PFAS for proper performance and protection. Added to that, it’s just not yet possible to make a proper chemical splash resistance that doesn’t contain PFAS. That said, if you don’t need chemical splash protection then you don’t need PFAS. It’s as simple as that. Of course, one might still want to have water repellency, and for that, there are several solutions available - either using a finish (with or without PFAS) or by laminating fabrics which makes garments fully waterproof. So, there are clearly various options available, and it all starts with knowing what type of protection you need for the specific job at hand.
So, what does the EU say about PFAS?
EU REACH, the European regulatory body for chemicals, includes PFAS on its Restricted Substance List for 2021. However, the textile industry is exempt from this since PFAS are still needed as substances used within textiles for protection against chemical splashes according to EN ISO 13043. In a nutshell – we’re allowed to use PFAS on protective fabrics within Europe (see point 3.b on REACH’s webpage under ‘Requirements and Exemptions’).
And what does the us say about PFAS?
Chemical splash protection is not mandatory in the US when it comes to protective gear for firefighters specifically. Firefighters there only need water repellent garments at minimum. Therefore, our US colleagues at TenCate Protective Fabrics launched a special FreeFAS™ finish for emergency response garments and in response to the growing need for PFAS-free protective gear. These durable garments are setting a trend in the industry since they have no PFAS but are still water repellent.
What are the health concerns when it comes to PFAS?
PFAS are known to be highly pervasive in our environment - more so than any other man-made substance. They have been dubbed as ‘forever chemicals’ – they simply don’t break down. Even if all creation of PFAS would come to a halt tomorrow, these substances would remain in our environment for generations to come.
On the other hand, in the textile industry, we have adopted standards to ensure people wearing protective clothing are safe from all possible exposure to the chemicals. The main standard for protective fabrics that ensures this is Oekotex 100. All protective fabrics used in Europe are Oekotex 100 certified and, as such, will not surpass limit values for PFAS used in finishes. If you want to know more about the toxicity of PFAS, feel free to read this article from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
Assess your level of protection
At the end of the day, we at TenCate Protective Fabrics want to ensure that you have not only the best level of protection for your team but also the most necessary according to the risks at hand.
Our advice – be critical when it comes to your choice of garments and understand the risks and what these mean for your team. This starts with a proper risk assessment. Thereafter, you can see which solution best fits your needs.
Read more about how to conduct a risk assessment in 7 simple steps, or even better, download our NEW Proclaud® guide on the topic. Keen to speak to someone directly? Have our experts perform a proper risk audit.