Includes clothing shoes

Impregnating agentPFCs in clothing and sprays are harmful to nature and health

If you want to impregnate shoes and clothing with PFC-containing sprays, you should go outside. The stuff is poisonous in high concentrations. But that is not all. Anyone who uses PFC must know that they are paying a high price for it.

The Kaiserplatz in Bonn. One in three people that day wears an outdoor jacket. Whether retrospectively impregnated or ex-works: here you will find perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals.

"Well, it's pretty old, washed pretty often. It's already five, six, seven years old."

And yet it is still tight. The problem: some of the substances that ensure that it is still tight have long been in the environment and cause problems there. But many do not even know that.

"If you go shopping somewhere as a normal customer, you won't be informed about it."

Durable group of fabrics

Education is difficult because PFCs can be found everywhere, but the group of substances is large and their long-term effects on people and nature are difficult to research.

"PFC is a group of 5,000 different substances, so they are very different substances."

Frauke Stock, head of the chemicals department at the Federal Environment Agency.

"They accumulate and we do not know when it will happen in the environment that we will see effects in the environment, that organisms are actually damaged."

In extremely high concentrations, PFCs have increased the risk of cancer in animal studies and caused reproductive harm. When it comes to the question of how dangerous this will be for people and the environment, the expert opinions on PFCs are just as volatile as the substances themselves.

"You could say that these are the perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals. That is, chemicals with fluorine atoms attached to a carbon structure. That is what makes this chemical so stable, and that is also what is used for a wide range of applications."

Stability becomes an environmental problem

We use the stability so that nothing burns in the Teflon pan, so that fire-fighting foam works well and to keep our jackets and shoes clean and dry with waterproofing sprays. But this stability has undesirable consequences.

"All PFCs are durable. That means they won't break any more. Once you've made them, there is no mechanism in nature that can break them down in a reasonable time frame."

Manfred Santen is a qualified chemist and expert for problematic substances at Greenpeace. When I get to him, he is waiting in Hong Kong for his flight to Manila

"That means that they will be around forever, and if they have properties that are harmful to health, it will last forever."

PFC combine two properties. Firstly, high stability and secondly, the ability to easily spread via the atmosphere to any place in the world and then to accumulate in organisms. In 2015, Greenpeace wanted to know how widespread PFCs actually are.

"That means we took snow samples from high mountains. The snow was untouched, and we then examined the snow and found that we found PFCs in the snow at each of these eight sampling points."

PFCs are detectable everywhere

High concentrations are found in the Arctic. The substances are bioaccumulative, which means they collect in animals such as polar bears. PFCs also come back to us via wastewater and sewage sludge. There they are suspected of increasing the risk of cancer and of accumulating in breast milk.

"We know with some of the substances that they damage reproduction in studies with rats and mice."

These findings are not new. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has been writing reports for years, but PFCs are becoming more widespread. Manufacturers of outdoor clothing, for example, have only recently reacted and turned around.

"You also noticed that the companies were getting on the defensive. It is hard to argue that you need these substances to experience untouched nature. And then it is no longer untouched because you have legacies."

The alternatives to PFCs still work less well and are more expensive, but they do exist. Scandinavian manufacturers such as Fjällräven have been relying on fabrics that are waxed for years, and the outdoor outfitter VAUDE has developed a chemical alternative. According to the company, 96 percent of the articles are already PFC-free, and they also offer a PFC-free impregnation service. From next year PFC will no longer be used there. Manfred Santen hopes that at some point the public pressure will be so great that PFCs will be banned completely. And Frauke Stock also thinks that at least the production of PFC could end completely at some point in the distant future.

"We are maybe 20 or 30 years old. I don't know whether we will then be completely PFC-free, but maybe a whole step further."