Confusion about the 9,000 different perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) makes regulation a difficult subject.
By Brian Rosenstein
The miscommunication, disinformation, and overall confusion that is being spread around the textile industry regarding perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is getting worse every day. Unfortunately, this may not improve any time soon. As someone who works in the textile finishing industry,
I currently spend almost half of my time dealing with PFAS in one way or another. One may think this is a good thing for a textile coater who specializes in the application of durable water repellents (DWR) and other performance-enhancing
technologies. But when discussions have nothing to do with increased sales or new business development, it’s a big problem.
I was always taught not to present a problem without a suggestion on how to solve the problem. PFAS seems to have become an exception to that “rule.”
PFAS is an umbrella term for more than 9,000 unique substances that all have one thing in common — they provide the highest level of cleanability and stain resistance. There is
no other technology on the planet that can singularly protect against water and oil-based stains at the level of a PFAS. Substitutes result in inferior protection. PFAS can be found in a wide variety of products such as automobiles,
food packaging, military equipment, cosmetics, cell phones, and yes, textiles. While a small subset of
the 9,000 substances have been linked to environmental and health hazards, the majority of them have not. More importantly, the PFAS chemicals that are currently used in the textile industry have not been tied to any health or environmental hazards. However, the small subset of harmful substances has made the entire group of chemicals a target for regulation.
So why is there so much confusion about PFAS? The biggest culprit is the fact that as an industry, our audience has changed. We’re no longer trying to sell customers on something they need and instead are dealing with regulators on science. Customers can be persuaded by science and facts. Regulators will only process enough information to fit their agenda, which leads to poor decision-making.
For example, many may have heard of the dreaded CAS# by now. Briefly, a Chemical Abstracts Service number (CAS#) is a unique identification for any given chemical that exists. There cannot be one CAS# for a group of chemicals. The definition of PFAS literally means, “many different fluorinated chemicals.” Therefore, it is virtually impossible to create one CAS# for a specific PFAS. The only solution is to identify and disclose the many individual CAS# that make up any given PFAS product. When this happens, it might be possible to assign a CAS# to one of the 9,000 different PFAS chemicals. The problem is that this is akin to revealing a chemical formula or intellectual property. Translation: no one will be getting a CAS# for PFAS right now. Unfortunately, regulators — at both federal and state levels — are continuing to ask for one specific CAS# for PFAS sold into their state. What are the product manufacturers supposed to do in this situation?
Another example of poor decision-making is illustrated by the Department of Defense (DoD), which almost passed a rule banning all PFAS on all textile materials it purchases for the U.S. military, including warfighters.
If passed, there would no longer be any alcohol or oil protection on the coveralls for our fuel handlers on aircraft carriers or surgical scrubs for doctors performing surgeries. The rule also would result in reduced protection against moisture and the elements for Kevlar® body armor.
Once moisture is introduced to Kevlar, it is no longer bulletproof. This broad-brush approach employed by the DoD to eliminate PFAS quite literally puts people’s lives in danger. Fortunately, at the eleventh hour, the Washington-based National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) was able to get the provision removed from the bill. But that was last year, and unfortunately, this same provision is now back on the table as part of DoD purchase plans for 2023.
Sharing The Message The Right Way
Where has the textile industry failed? The problem is education, and more importantly, the third component of education. There are three key parts when it comes to teaching an audience — content, volume and messaging.
In the textile arena, both content and volume have been maxed out. We have more detailed information and people willing to present it than is necessary. But the messaging still reflects an approach towards customers and not regulators. When textile professionals try to educate their audience, its common to see a periodic table of the elements, graphs, charts, and sometimes even a T-square. While highly accurate and irrefutable, this method of educating is not received very well by our new audience — the regulators. Especially when it’s compared to the environmentalists’ message where sensationalism is an artform. Scientists still wear pocket protectors and don’t know how to scare people. This makes exposing the truth about PFAS even harder.
Lawmakers at both the federal and state levels have all of the information they need to make sound decisions on PFAS. But sound decisions are not happening because the science is boring and doesn’t usually earn votes. While there are plenty of “teachers” out there, what is really needed is a team of PFAS-whisperers who understand the science AND can effectively convey the information to these decision-makers. This is sorely needed as soon as possible because poor decisions are being made at breakneck speed.
Some states are already beginning to pass laws based upon the confusion and misinformation. Some of the states are not looking to ban PFAS right out of the gate. They are asking instead that certain key pieces of information are reported. At least one of those states recently passed a law mandating certain PFAS reporting by January 1, 2023. Many companies already have begun collecting and preparing information to meet this new requirement. There’s only one problem — there’s nowhere to send the data. The same state who legislated reporting to begin in January isn’t expected to have its data-collection system up and running until at least April 2023. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. In the meantime, the supply chain is scrambling to address the new state regulations on PFAS while spending untold amounts of time and money. In the absence of any federal oversight, each state will devise its own method of monitoring and regulating PFAS. Currently, five states actively are trying to legislate or regulate PFAS, and none of them have the same set of “rules.” Only 45 more to go after that. What are manufacturers supposed to do?
It is a huge problem. Lawmakers and regulators are running out of their shoes in this “race” to eliminate PFAS. Personally, I just wish they would take a breath, slow down, and make a concerted effort to actually listen to the science and make educated decisions.
How can the industry help solve this problem? By joining advocacy groups, such as NCTO, which possesses the experience and lawmaker outreach. This will give the textile industry a stronger, clearer voice in educating the individuals who are charged with making decisions in our country. PFAS is not the end of this. Once PFAS is in the rearview mirror, another topic no doubt will bubble to the surface. Maybe it will be an attempt to ban antimicrobials or flame retardants, again. Or perhaps lawmakers will try to ban cleaning products such as bleach and solvents. How’s that for irony?
Bottom line is this: Everyone reading this article either already has a product, or will have a product impacted by government regulation. The only solution is to do a better job of educating our government about what it is the textile industry does and the benefits its products offer.
Editor’s Note: Brian A. Rosenstein is CEO of Devon, Pa.-based TSG Finishing LLC, a fifth-generation family-owned high-performance finishing and coating company with facilities in Hickory and East Conover, N.C. TSG Finishing provides value-added service to all textile markets including medical, military, automotive, construction, home furnishings and filtration. The company recently announced a multiphase investment project to modernize all its primary textile finishing equipment.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official policy or position of Textile World/Textile Industries Media Group, LLC or its clients.