According to researchers from the University of Leeds, the very waterproof jackets designed to protect us from the elements may also be exposing us to harmful chemicals.
A common wardrobe staple, waterproof jackets usually contain fluorochemicals to repel rain from fabric. However, the researchers believe that the fluorochemicals may be unnecessarily exposing the wearer to chemicals that have been linked to health problems and that pose an environmental threat.
Although some name-brand companies have discovered alternative chemistries, many other brands insist that the fabric treated with alternative chemistries don't work as well as the fabrics treated with the fluorochemicals.
As part of the study, researchers compared the fabric performance of untreated fabrics with fabrics treated with the alternative finishes and those treated with the fluorochemicals (fluorocarbons). In addition to the comparisons, the research team also surveyed 575 avid outdoors-people about using the waterproof fabrics.
"Most studies just look at technical aspects or environmental pollution, but we wanted to see what consumers considered the most important factors in choosing outdoor clothing," said Philippa Hill, whose PhD research is the subject of the study.
"We found that 82 percent of people considered water repellency to be the most important factor, but the majority of people were indifferent to levels of stain resistance and oil repellency—one participant even said 'I don't get oily when walking'," added Miss Hill.
According to Dr. Richard Blackburn, head of the Sustainable Materials Research Group at Leeds, "We concluded that the use of fluorochemicals in outdoor apparel represents over-engineering, providing oil repellency that is in excess of user requirements.”
"Significant environmental and toxicological benefits could be achieved by switching outdoor apparel to non-fluorinated finishes without a significant reduction in garment water-repellency performance."
Performance clothing lecturer Dr. Mark Taylor from the Leeds School of Design, said: "We found water repellency ratings were similar across the range of all finished fabrics tested. Non-fluorinated finishes provided no oil repellency, as expected."
In addition to performance, sustainability is also an ongoing concern in the textile and clothing industry—using about a quarter of the chemicals produced worldwide. The chemicals are used to alter fabric properties such as color, feel, flame-retardancy and water-repellency.
Dr. Blackburn added: "It's very important that sustainability should be about better chemistry. Consumers don't need to compromise on performance for the sake of the environment. However, for all products and processes we have to weigh up if the requirements we are aiming for are fit for purpose."
The team will continue to further research the effects of laundering, abrasion and aging on the treated fabrics.