Waterproofing's Dirty Little Secret
Is Your Jacket Harming the Environment?
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It’s among the most satisfying of all outdoor experiences: Standing in a deluge, you watch the rain bead off your waterproof jacket like droplets off a freshly waxed Porsche. Not only do you feel dry, you feel smug: Technology has triumphed over nature. Would you feel even better knowing that the repellent function stems from sustainable materials?
For decades, manufacturers have coated waterproof fabrics with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish made of long-chain perfluorocarbons (PFCs) that contained a troublesome eight-carbon molecule called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). It makes your jacket act like Teflon, preventing water from soaking into the jacket’s outer layers, which would limit breathability and make you feel clammy.
But PFOA is like the pesky party guest that doesn’t realize when it’s time to leave. PFOA doesn’t break down in the environment—it’ll outlast the very mountains that hikers love to climb—and studies have found that just about everyone, in countries across the globe, has traces of it in his or her blood. The problem? The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies PFOA as a suspected carcinogen.
So gear manufacturers are increasingly searching for safer alternatives. The most commonly used treatment today is a six-carbon (C6) chemical molecule that’s free of PFOA. Our bodies are able to flush it away a little faster.
The most commonly used treatment today is a six-carbon (C6) chemical molecule that’s free of PFOA. Our bodies can flush it away a little faster. But it’s more of a Band-Aid than a long-term solution. C6 is still a nasty PFC, and it raises many of the same environmental concerns posed by the traditional C8 coatings. And they’re not as long-lasting, so jackets treated with C6 coatings Plus, C6 finishes aren’t quite as good as C8 at repelling water. And they’re not as long-lasting, so jackets treated with C6 coatings will need to be retreated sooner to maintain surface waterproofing.
Some brands are experimenting with treatments and constructions that are completely PFC-free, and new innovations are appearing every year. One chemical company, Bolger & O’Hearn, recently released a PFC-free DWR treatment called Altopel F3. The good news is that various global brands Various brands are field-testing Altopel F3 to see if it offers the durability and staying power that consumers now expect and desire. In addition, current lab results suggest that F3 may have real staying power. These tests were performed by the highly esteemed Hohenstein Institute in Germany and found that Altopel F3 withstood multiple launderings to earn the highest possible durability rating.
So, what’s the best way to make sure a sustainable alternative like Altopel F3 appears on a jacket you can buy? Demand this sustainable alternative. Ask for it by name. By assuring manufacturers that you want—and will buy—gear that’s PFC-free, hikers can help clean up the industry they rely on for all-weather comfort.