The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing have just begun! While athletes and officials prepare for the games amid COVID-19, there are other potential health issues brewing that the athletes may or may not even know about: chemicals and sports clothing.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a diverse set of human-made chemicals, according to the FDA, that are used for waterproofing, stain resistance, creating a nonstick surface, and more. There are more than 11,000 of these so-called PFAS chemicals. Because of their manmade status and incredibly hard-to-break bonds, they have been dubbed the “forever chemicals” as they will never break down in the environment on their own. Ever.
These chemicals have been found everywhere, from the wild regions of the arctic to human breast milk, and they have even been found in the blood of most humans. PFAS are associated with health harms such as increased cancer risks, birth defects, immune suppression, lessened vaccination response, and more. These chemicals debuted in the 1930s but have proliferated in recent decades. Along the way, the chemicals have created an Olympian-sized contamination problem in humans and the environment.
PFAS and winter sports gear
You may be wondering how this relates to the Olympics, and the answer is that PFAS chemicals have found their way into winter sports. Turns out these chemistries are incredibly handy for winter gear, enabling fabrics and textiles to be waterproof. No one is going to argue that it’s useful for performance. But people are starting to ask if the performance is worth the chemical cost?
From your head to your toes, your gear may be covered with the stuff. The average winter coat probably has been made from a material, or treated with a substance, to make it wind, rain, or snow-proof. The most common fabric/textile used for this is known by its trademark name, Gore-Tex. (Did you know that the generic trademark for that Gore-Tex is Teflon?) Part of what makes it perform as weather resistant is the very fact that it’s made with these perfluorinated chemistries. Most rain gear, boots, mittens, gloves, and many winter boots are also treated with these forever chemicals to be waterproof. Even some athletic leggings and sports bras have been tested and contain more than trace amounts of these chemicals and their by-products.
Back to winter sports, let’s consider ski gear: pants, hats, boots, and the surfaces of skis and snowboards are all treated with chemicals so that they can have that nonstick slip making them faster on any terrain and water resistant.
Remember those nonstick pans covered in Teflon that you purged from your kitchen because you didn’t want to ingest those chemicals? Well, most outdoor winter gear provides another channel of exposure to you, your family, and the environment. These forever chemicals are invisible, so you can’t see them with the naked eye, nor can you smell them. But they are persistent, and after use, they can impact the environment considerably. This has some legislators talking about limits.
Despite known harm and widespread contamination caused by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—documented in the movie Dark Waters and the documentary The Devil We Know—their use is pervasive. While EPA is entertaining restrictions of these long-chain perfluorinated substances, they aren’t ruling out all use. At least not yet.
This is unfortunately the way chemicals are currently evaluated in the US. Each chemical is evaluated individually, on a case-by-case basis. So instead of making a rule pertaining to the entire family or “class” of chemicals, they can continue to be permitted, restricted, or prohibited one by one. How long will it take for EPA to review all 11,000+ chemicals in this class? Currently, reporting is required on 170 specific chemicals when they are present within facilities at quantities above 100 pounds or more, according to an industry report. Some states are starting to test for PFAS and have found them in soil and sludge.
PFAS continue to be produced in very large volumes and are used in numerous consumer and industrial applications. PFAS have been measured in every environmental medium tested, including air in remote regions, making it clear that there is a huge global reservoir of PFAS circulating in the environment. Now that awareness is building, particularly in places like Minnesota, where heavy use of these chemicals has been found, there is talk of trying to establish limits on their use—even if voluntary to start.
What can be done about PFAS in winter gear?
Alas, the options for great alternatives in gear and apparel are extremely slim, and this is where we need to push outdoor and gear companies to get to work. They have the capacity for innovation and could devote resources to solving this problem. But they need to hear from you—the consumer—to make it a priority.
The bright spot is that some manufacturers are moving away from such chemicals. For example, Patagonia has made a pledge to ban PFAS from their apparel by 2024, and North Face is also looking to reduce the use of these chemistries, and there’s pressure on stores like REI to adopt a strong position as well.
In the meantime, get to know how this stuff is entering your home, making its way into our water supply, and getting into your bloodstream—and take action on a personal level. Any attempt to minimize your exposures to these chemicals is a starting point.
As for the Olympians—depending on what their sport is and what they wear to train—they might want to consider purchasing their gear from companies that are eliminating dangerous chemicals, as they pursue their dreams of gold.