The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has published a report and a policy brief on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as a chemical class in the textile industry. The publications examine the scientific, policy, and practical reasons for approaching PFAS as a class.

Many chemicals used in textile production have adverse health and environmental impacts. For example, hazardous chemicals found in effluents from textile processing facilities can cause cancer and disrupt hormonal systems in humans and animals. PFAS and other toxic chemicals cannot be removed by wastewater treatment plants. Hazardous flame retardants, including brominated and chlorinated organic compounds, are also used in textile production. Many dyes contain heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, and mercury, while azo dyes, used to treat textiles, contain carcinogenic amines.

Unsound practices and poor wastewater management impact not only the health of textile workers but also communities living near facilities, consumers of textile products, waste collectors and secondary processers, and the environment. The cost to the textile industry of poor chemical management is estimated at €7 billion per year, indicated by the value opportunity of eliminating occupational illnesses by 2030.

The report, titled 'Engaging the textiles industry as a key sector in SAICM: A review of PFAS as a chemical class in the textile sector,' notes the textile sector's environmental significance and the scope of PFAS used within it. Its global value chain includes companies of all sizes, which provides lessons for capacity building and enabling conditions that can extend to other sectors.

The authors review relevant private sector commitments regarding supply chain management, and identify enabling conditions for advancing improved public health and environmental protection in the textiles sector. The report details SAICM’s efforts to date across the textiles life cycle, and explains that SAICM can foster cooperation among actors across the textiles value chain, promoting a circular economy approach.  

The report looks at managing PFAS as a chemical class in the textiles industry in order to: inform stakeholder dialogue; support decision making for the Strategic Approach and sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020; and encourage other relevant chemicals management discussions.

Some industry initiatives have helped address the sound management of chemicals in the textiles sector, including the development of transparency standards, guidelines, and restricted substances lists. The report notes the opportunity to scale up actions and mainstream sound chemicals management across the entire value chain in the textiles sector.

The policy brief, titled 'A review of PFAS as a Chemical Class in the Textiles Sector,' identifies enabling conditions for advancing improved public health and environment protection in the textiles sector. It includes recommendations for government and the private sector in approaching PFAS as a class for production and use control purposes.

The brief recommends governments:

  • eliminate non-essential PFAS productions/uses and prohibit such exports to the developing world;
  • promote research and development on safe alternatives for essential uses;
  • review uses deemed essential to account for the development of alternatives;
  • improve and expand global access to testing methods;
  • facilitate data gathering, and international cooperation/capacity building;
  • facilitate private sector initiatives through purchasing decisions and awareness raising; and
  • strengthen collaboration between all actors in the textiles value chain.

The brief suggests the private sector:

  • adopt PFAS elimination policy at the highest corporate levels;
  • understand the supply chain and provide educational materials/training to suppliers to facilitate PFAS identification;
  • inventory known and potential PFAS sources and uses;
  • assess essentiality of PFAS uses and alternatives, and publicize results while protecting proprietary information;
  • conduct research and development on safe alternatives for identified essential uses;
  • improve and expand global access to testing methods;
  • implement policy and monitor progress; and
  • report policy implementation results transparently and confirm through a third-party audit.

Under both SAICM and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), PFAS have been gaining increased international attention. Since 2009, chemicals in products have been identified as an Emerging Policy Issue and PFAS as an Issue of Concern by SAICM, which has enhanced efforts to gather and exchange information on PFAS chemicals and support the transition to safer alternatives. 

In addition, the Stockholm Convention has taken steps to control the production and trade of a subset of PFAS and has recommended a set of alternatives to those substances. The report notes the chemical-by-chemical approach typically associated with regulatory frameworks appears ill-equipped to address the thousands of chemicals in the PFAS class, and the need for a more comprehensive approach. [Publication: Engaging the textiles industry as a key sector in SAICM: A review of PFAS as a chemical class in the textile sector] [Publication: A review of PFAS as a Chemical Class in the Textiles Sector]